Among the elderly population, depression is a major concern. University of California professor of psychiatry Barry Lebowitz explains this best: “Depression disables everyone, but all too often it kills older people.” It’s important that you understand the signs and risk factors of depression in older adults to protect yourself and your loved ones.
Understand the Risk
Eighty percent of older adults live with at least one chronic health problem. Fifty percent live with at least two. The pain and limited function caused by these problems often causes clinical depression, which requires treatment. Doctors often misdiagnose depression in seniors because of ageism in our society. Healthcare providers along with older adults themselves often assume that feelings of depression are a reaction to illness or part of aging. This is not the case. Depression and Anxiety is not a normal part of aging.
Nursing home residents or hospitalized seniors are at the highest risk. The rate of depression in that population is 5 to 8 times that of seniors living at home.
Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Depression in the Elderly
Depression is not just part of growing old. It is a serious, treatable medical condition. Understanding the symptoms of depression in older adults is potentially lifesaving. The most important symptom is periods of feeling anxious or sad for weeks at a time. Others include:
- Pessimistic thoughts and feeling hopeless
- Trouble sleeping, sleeping too much, waking up too early
- Struggling to remember details, concentrate, and make decisions
- Eating too much or not feeling hungry at all
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
- No longer feeling interested in your favorite hobbies and activities
- Restlessness and/or irritability
- Experiencing persistent aches, pains, cramps, digestive problems, and headaches; they continue even with treatment
- Decreased energy and fatigue
Spend Less Time Alone
Social isolation and depression are closely linked. Depression often makes you want to be alone, but being alone consequently will worsen your depression. Schedule activities with friends and family to limit alone time when your depressed. Go to senior centers or find local shared interest groups to join. These might include book clubs, sewing or knitting clubs, exercise groups, etc. You can find these groups on meetup.com or through your local Area on Aging. If you do not use a computer, ask a friend or loved one to help locate one. Most Senior Center have a designated person to help you find social clubs that you may be interested in. Volunteering, joining a social club, or doing hobbies with others will help keep you happy.
When You’re Alone, Keep Busy
Spending too much time alone gives you time to ruminate. When you suffer from depression, dwelling on negative thoughts and blaming yourself for your disease will only make things worse. To protect yourself from this, you should spend your time engaged and active. Activities like reading, cooking, call someone or exercising will keep your mind busy. You can always share with a neighbor to meet new people to socialize with! Try to surround yourself with others when you feel especially down.
Develop Healthy Habits
Sleeping regularly, exercising, and eating healthy fats are some natural ways to beat depression. Irregular sleep is associated with major depression. Going to sleep at the same time each night, taking melatonin supplements, and limiting electronic screen use at night can help you sleep regularly. Plus, melatonin supplements may have antidepressant affects.
Any form of exercise reduces depression. A recent study shows that even exercising just 15 minutes per day on a no-impact stationary bike reduces depression symptoms. Exercise also releases endorphins in the body. These help reduce feelings of pain and give you a positive feeling. Eating foods full of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids also helps reduce depression symptoms. These include salmon, trout, sardines, walnuts, and flaxseeds. Add some sunlight for 15 minutes a day and this will compound your results!
The prevention and treatment of depression in the elderly requires a combination of lifestyle changes and possibly medication as a last reosrt. If your doctor prescribes you medicine to help with your depression, be sure to take it. This is a key part of your treatment and is prescribed to help you have fewer rough days.
Know Where to Find Help if You Need It
If you or your loved one shows signs of depression, reach out to a local healthcare professional. For resources and a list of local mental health services, go to Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health’s website. You can also call their 24/7 hotline at 1-800-854-7771.
"Depression in Not a Normal Part of Growing Older.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 01 Jan. 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/aging/mentalhealth/depression.htm
Gitalis, Josh. “The 5 Best Ways to Prevent Depression Naturally.” Mindbodygreen, 12 Mar. 2014. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-12914/the-5-best-ways-to-prevent-depression-naturally.html
Graham, Judith. “New Ways to Help Seniors Deal with Pain and Depression.” The Washington Post, 24 Jun. 2013. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/new-ways-to-help-seniors-deal-with-pain-and-depression/2013/06/24/9d7a7e10-c6ea-11e2-9245-773c0123c027_story.html
Soong, Jennifer. “6 Common Depression Traps to Avoid.” WebMD, 02 Apr. 2014 https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/depression-traps-and-pitfalls