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Depression in Seniors - How to Recognize the Signs

While depression in elderly people isn’t always a widely discussed issue, it is unfortunately prevalent in the community. The CDC estimates that around 1% to 5% of older adults experience depression, with those numbers rising for those who are hospitalized or require home health care.

The challenge with the condition is that it manifests differently in older adults. This makes it difficult for loved ones and caregivers to identify the signs and recognize the need for treatment. By knowing the common symptoms and being aware of the unique challenges that face older adults with depression, you can be better equipped to face the condition head-on and help your loved one get the support they need.
Depressed Senior Man with Head in Hands

Elderly Depression vs. Feeling Down

Before going further, it’s important to understand the difference between depression and simply being sad. Of course, it’s normal to feel down from time to time. Many seniors face moments of temporarily feeling blue, even if they don’t have a good explanation as to why. They may also experience sadness for a specific reason, such as loneliness, grief, or difficulties adapting to changes in their lives.

However, when someone has those feelings for more than two weeks – and when they affect someone’s ability to handle their daily life – they may be facing depression. This is especially true when they are simultaneously experiencing other symptoms of depression, such as loss of interest, hopelessness, weight changes, and difficulty sleeping.

There are multiple types of depression, with one of the most common and severe being major depressive disorder (also known as clinical depression). This disorder is defined by the patient feeling low for at least two weeks, as well as them experiencing other symptoms of depression. Another common form of depression is persistent depressive disorder, a mild to moderate form of depression that can last for months.

Seniors and Depression: The Unique Challenges

There are many challenges that seniors face when battling depression that are unique to their demographic. In particular, there’s often a stigma among the senior population around talking openly about mental health challenges. Even when a senior recognizes that something is “off” with their mental wellness, they may feel apprehensive about seeking help from a medical professional or discussing their issues with family or friends. The stigmatization of mental health may also lead them to believe that depression isn’t a “real” illness, reducing their likelihood to reach out for help.

Additionally, there are also often challenges around getting a timely diagnosis. Depressive symptoms in older adults are often overlooked by medical professionals, and many physicians don’t focus on discussing mental health with senior patients..

Physicians may also mistake depressive symptoms as just a reaction to illnesses or changes in the patient’s life, minimizing the need to further address these potential signs of depression. Unfortunately, this can further delay diagnosis and much-needed treatment.

Be aware of changes in your loved one's energy, attitude, and outlook on life.

Tips for Recognizing Senior Depression

Given these challenges, it’s important for family members caring for older relatives to do their part to help recognize depression signs.

As mentioned, depression often looks different in seniors compared to younger people. Like physicians, family members may also attribute signs of depression to other causes, or think that the symptoms are simply part of the getting older process. All of this can make recognition difficult, especially given the fact that education around the specifics of depression in the elderly population is lacking.

If you are caring for an older relative, the best thing you can do is familiarize yourself with the different senior depression symptoms, as well as the potential causes. With this knowledge, you can be better prepared to identify the signs early on and help your loved one get the care that they need.

Signs of Depression in Seniors

When you think of depression, you probably think of sadness. While it may often be one of the tell-tale signs of depression, sadness is a less common symptom in older adults. That’s not to say it won’t be present in some seniors dealing with depression – it’s just not the number one symptom to look out for.

There are many other cognitive signs of depression in elderly patients that you should be aware of. This includes a loss of interest in things that may have once brought them joy (like hobbies or socializing with others), a decline in motivation, lower energy levels, irritability, and feelings of hopelessness.

Some older adults battling depression also face a reduced self-worth or feelings of guilt. This may manifest in them expressing their feelings of being a “burden” on those caring for them.

Additionally, some seniors will have memory problems and a loss of concentration. Unfortunately, this can lead to a misdiagnosis of dementia.

Beyond these mental and emotional signs, other symptoms of depression in elderly people can include:
  • Changes in appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Physical aches and pain in the body not explained by another condition
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep issues, including a difficulty falling or staying asleep, as well as oversleeping
  • Slower movement and/or speech
  • Neglect of hygiene and other personal care practices

Causes of Depression in Older Adults

It’s equally as important to be aware of the many potential causes of depression in older adults. If caregivers can address these underlying causes, they may be able to help resolve depression (or avoid it altogether). Some of the most common triggers include:
  • Social Isolation: People often see their social life evolve and get smaller as they age. This can be due to deaths or relocations of friends, as well as their own inability to partake in social activities (either due to mobility or mental limitations). This loneliness may be an underlying cause of depression.
  • A Lack of Purpose: While many look forward to retirement, there are also challenges that come with this stage of life. Seniors may experience a loss in identity and confidence once they leave the workforce, which may trigger depression.
  • Medical Conditions: Chronic medical conditions can either directly or indirectly lead to depression. Health problems and physical limitations that make it more challenging to complete daily tasks, engage in activities they used to enjoy, and generally be independent can contribute to depression. Additionally, there are medical conditions that have been shown to trigger depression, including Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and thyroid diseases.
  • Vitamin Deficiencies: Certain nutrient deficiencies may also contribute to depression. In particular, vitamin B12 and folate deficiencies have been linked to depression in older adults.
  • Medications: Unfortunately, many of the medications often prescribed to seniors may also be responsible for triggering or worsening depression symptoms. This includes blood pressure medicine, pain medication, and chemotherapy drugs.

Caring for Loved Ones with Depression

If you have a senior loved one who might be facing depression, here are a few things you can do to support their mental wellbeing.

Stay Connected
The most helpful thing you can do for your loved one is staying connected with them – whether it be with in person visits or over the phone. Try to also encourage other family members to plan regular visits to keep their spirits up.

If they talk about their mental state, be careful not to try to fix their problems or criticize what they express. Rather, be a listening ear and offer emotional support. This can go a long way in helping them feel less isolated.

Find Classes, Clubs, and Ways for Them to Get Involved in the Community
Another way to help your family member battle social isolation and a reduced sense of purpose is by encouraging them to get involved in new activities. This might look like helping them find classes or clubs that match their interests, or looking for volunteer opportunities that allow them to give back to the local community.

Help Shift Their Focus Towards What They Can Do
As your loved one ages, it may be easy for them to fall into a mindset of focusing on what they can no longer do. Help them shift the way they look at their life by focusing on the things that they can do, rather than dwelling on what they’ve lost. If they are in a rut, helping them find new hobbies that are suitable for any physical or cognitive limitations they might have can renew their confidence and foster a more positive outlook.

Encourage Your Loved One to Get the Medical Support They Need
You can also help by encouraging your family member to meet with a doctor to get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. Be available to help them follow through with their mental health treatment, whether that be driving them to therapy and doctor’s appointments, scheduling follow ups, or picking up their medications.

When you see signs of depression, quickly connect the senior with mental health care.

Helpful Resources for Seniors with Depression

In addition to having your loved one meet with a medical professional, you may want to look into local Florida organizations for additional support and care. For example, Aging True (based in Jacksonville) has a variety of mental health services for older adults and their caregivers, including counseling and support groups. The Florida Department of Elder Affairs has also compiled a list of programs and groups throughout the state dedicated to supporting seniors and their mental health challenges.

There are also some national organizations and services that provide information and support to seniors navigating mental health issues, including:

  • National Council on Aging: NCOA publishes free educational articles and hosts webinars on mental health, as well as other topics relating to the overall wellbeing of seniors.
  • Veterans Crisis Line (988): Senior veterans experiencing mental health challenges can call the Veterans Crisis Line and then press 1 to speak with a counselor.
  • Crisis Text Hotline (741-741): Anyone can text the Crisis Text Hotline at any time to talk to a crisis counselor about depression and other mental health challenges.

Take Control of Elderly Depression

Depression shouldn’t be considered to be a normal part of the aging process – but it is unfortunately common. While depression in older adults comes with its own unique set of challenges, by being aware of the signs and being able to recognize the condition, you will put yourself on the right path towards getting your loved one the care and attention they need.
Concierge Care is a Florida based nurse registry. Since 2013 our team has connected thousands of seniors with quality home care. We are available 24/7 and take a personal approach with every client. Let our family help yours find the perfect caregiver.
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Concierge Care is a care provider referral service (not an agency). We connect clients with pre-background-screened, pre-credential-verified providers who operate independently and are not employees. Our nurse registry model supports consumer-directed care, where each person determines all aspects of their home care services.
Concierge Care is a care provider referral service (not an agency). We connect clients with pre-background-screened, pre-credential-verified providers who operate independently and are not employees. Our nurse registry model supports consumer-directed care, where each person determines all aspects of their home care services.
Concierge Care is a care provider referral service (not an agency). We connect clients with pre-background-screened, pre-credential-verified providers who operate independently and are not employees. Our nurse registry model supports consumer-directed care, where each person determines all aspects of their home care services.