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There is a much deeper focus on mental health these days, and that’s nothing but a good thing. But it has shown us the seriousness of depression in older adults, with more than 19 million seniors in America alone struggling with the condition every year.
What’s shocking is that only around 10% of seniors access treatment for depression which tells us that millions of people are continuing to struggle. Since mental health wasn’t something that was so openly discussed until recent years, many older adults may be too embarrassed to admit they need help.
It is important to recognize that depression is not a normal part of growing old, and just like every other health condition, should be taken seriously. Of course, it’s also important to understand that depression is not the same as just feeling a little down in the dumps, so familiarizing ourselves with the symptoms is essential.
Main Causes of Depression among Seniors
There is evidence to suggest that older adults may be more susceptible to depression when there are other factors at play, such as preexisting health conditions. While some people are genetically more prone to developing depression, others may not think that they are at risk. The truth is that any older adult could become depressed.
Understanding the common causes of depression among seniors may help us to limit the number of sufferers.
Loneliness & Isolation
This isolation can have a serious impact on mental wellbeing and results in a lot of older adults feeling depressed.
Much more than this, loneliness has been shown to also affect physical health, which can also cause depression, so it’s a vicious circle.
During episodes of pain, it is much more likely that a senior might experience depression. Even more worrying is that, pain experienced at any point in life could mean a higher risk of depression later in life.
For people who have pain or mobility impairments, they may develop what is known as learned helplessness which has been shown to make depression worse.
It is inevitable that later in life, we will experience the loss of loved ones. But our years of wisdom don’t mean that we are any more able to handle this than a younger person. In fact, for an older adult, the loss of a partner or spouse could cause them to plummet into depression purely because of the loneliness they now experience.
For some older adults, friends will pass away leaving what was once a large social circle, now lacking. Not only does the person have to deal with this but of course, their emotions on the loss of the person. For many people, deaths occur regularly, which can take a serious toll on their mental wellbeing.
We spend our lives with some sense of purpose, and many of us find that in our work. However, once we retire, that sense of purpose diminishes, and some older adults find this very difficult to deal with. This is especially true if they also don’t have family or friends that need their help in some way.
Moreover, with all that free time, it’s often difficult to find things to fill the day and this can lead to extreme boredom. When this happens, it can have a profound impact on mental health.
When your physical health declines, this can have a direct impact on your mental and emotional well-being. When your physical function becomes limited, this can lead to depression, and when you consider that around 80% of all seniors have two medical conditions, it’s easy to see why this might cause depression.
Medical conditions that are life-limiting, life-threatening, painful, or debilitating can increase the risk of depression. This might include things like cancer, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, MS, and dementia, among many others.
When we reach our later years, these health conditions mean that we may need to take a concoction of medications. However, these come with side effects, and some are known to cause symptoms of depression.
These might include but are not limited to, antipsychotics, sedatives, cardiovascular drugs, and chemotherapeutics. If you find that you have experienced depression since beginning a new medication, it is vital that you speak to your doctor to see if there is any alternative.
Loss of Independence
Many seniors struggle to age in place and even when they can, they may become more reliant on others for certain day-to-day tasks. Things like maintaining the home, going grocery shopping, helping with medication, and other things can make a senior feel as though they are a burden on their friends or family.
In some cases, seniors may need to move into a care setting, and this can take a huge emotional toll. They’re moving out of their beloved home and into a place where they’ll heavily rely on other people. This can be very unsettling for a lot of people and may result in depression.
A lot of seniors rely on only a pension plan and this can be very limiting financially. Even those that have additional savings or assets will need to think very carefully about what they can and can’t spend and this can be tiring.
When older adults struggle to meet financial obligations, this can result in serious worry, which can then lead to depression. What’s more, a lot of seniors won’t ask for help because they are too proud, so relatives and friends are often unaware of their struggles.
Symptoms of Depression Among Seniors
A lot of older adults won’t admit when they are experiencing depression. Many of them feel ashamed and don’t want to reach out for help for fear of being a burden on their loved ones. In some cases, seniors may not even realize that there is a problem and may believe that they are merely feeling a little down.
This is why, as carers and loved ones, it is our responsibility to keep an eye out for clues that there might be an issue with depression.
What we need to keep in mind is that, in older adults, the symptoms of depression may not be as clear as those that present in younger people. Here are some of the things you might look out for.
Social Interaction Withdrawal
When seniors experience depression, they may stop interacting with their peers and loved ones in the same way they used to. They may take less interest in doing the things that once brought them pleasure and may avoid social contact as much as possible.
For many people, low mood refers to feeling sad. It is true that older adults with depression may feel sadness but they may also experience feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. Moreover, a lot of depressed seniors will find that they worry a lot more.
Where a once active and life-loving senior suddenly stops taking an interest in things that once loved, this could be a sign of depression.
No longer feeling worth anything or having lowered self-esteem could indicate that your older loved one is depressed.
Not Going Out
When feelings of depression take over, seniors may stay at home more often. Even if they previously spent a lot of time out of the house taking part in activities, visiting friends, and running errands, they may now find every reason under the sun not to go out.
Loss of Appetite
Depression can affect your appetite, and this is something we need to look out for in older adults. If the senior is actively skipping meals, this may be the fault of a lost appetite. While you might not necessarily see them at meal times, you can keep an eye out for things such as weight loss.
Changes in Sleep Patterns
If you notice that your loved one has had a serious change in their sleeping pattern, this could be indicative of depression. You should look out for the person not sleeping enough or perhaps sleeping far too much.
Seniors with depression might find it difficult to drop off to sleep. This could be a result of worrying about things or feeling anxious.
In relation to the last point, you may find that an older adult with depression suffers from extreme fatigue. This is often due to the inability to fall asleep which can leave the person feeling exhausted.
Worryingly, a lot of older people that are suffering from depression may have thoughts of self-harm or suicide. These aren’t necessarily something that the person will openly discuss, but if they do, it’s essential to take them seriously.
Alcohol or Substance Abuse
It is easy to fall into a self-medicating routine using things like drugs and alcohol, and seniors with depression are prone to this. Some may feel as though these substances take away their suffering or divert the mind from anxieties.
How to Treat Senior Depression
Just like any physical health condition, mental health conditions like depression can be successfully treated. It might be difficult for the senior to admit that they need treatment, but offering understanding and support as well as gently easing them around to the idea might help.
The problem is that, if treatment is not sought, depression is not a condition that will resolve itself. In many cases, it may worsen, so it’s important to seek help as soon as possible.
There are a range of talking therapies available that are extremely effective in the treatment of depression. Talking to a counselor about problems, concerns and feelings can be a way to release anxieties and this type of therapy is usually coupled with other psychotherapies.
One of the most commonly used types of psychotherapy for depression is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, known as CBT. CBT works to help patients identify negative behaviors or patterns in their life as well as finding ways to change them. When stressful or challenging situations arise, patients are then more easily able to cope with them.
Not only do therapies like this help to combat depression, but they may also work towards the prevention of future episodes.
Sharing your feelings and experiences with people who are going through, or have been through something similar can often feel as though a huge weight has been lifted.
For seniors that are going through things like bereavement or illness, there are lots of support groups out there that can provide a friendly ear. What’s more, these groups may be able to point the person in the direction of other types of help.
There may even be local self-help groups for people suffering from depression.
For some people, the idea of taking medication to treat depression can feel intimidating but it doesn’t need to be. There are several drugs that successfully treat the condition, especially when used alongside psychotherapies.
Your doctor may prescribe you antidepressants and this includes a range of drugs such as sertraline, selegiline, fluoxetine, citalopram, and many others. These medications help to balance chemicals in the brain, therefore lifting your mood.
It is important to remember that antidepressants can come with a risk of side effects. The severity of these side effects will differ from person to person but will usually wear off after a few weeks. They may include things like headaches, insomnia, sexual issues, and anxiety. Moreover, it is not uncommon for your depressive symptoms to worsen before they get better, but it’s important to persist and note that most antidepressants can take a few weeks to take effect.
How to Cope with Senior Depression
Seeking treatment is one way to combat depression, but it certainly isn’t the only way. If you had a headache and had taken painkillers, you might also use a cold compress to aid your recovery. The same concept applies with depression, and finding ways to help yourself is important. Here are some ideas of what you might do.
Join a Club
Before you were depressed, you likely had a lot of things that you enjoyed doing. It might feel difficult getting back out into the world, but it will help. Consider joining a club where you can meet like-minded people. This might be a choir, an art club, a dancing club, or anything else that takes your fancy.
You can also look at what events are running at your local community center. Here, you’ll often find groups where you can socialize, and this is particularly useful if your depression has been caused by loneliness.
Take Up a New Hobby
Now is a great time to try out a new hobby. Having something that occupies your mind, holds your interest, and provides you with a challenge will make you look forward to each new day. What’s more, you’ll be learning new skills which can give you a renewed sense of purpose.
If there’s something you’ve always wanted to learn, like gardening, dancing, playing a musical instrument, or anything else, give it a go to aid your treatment.
Consider Light Therapy
During the fall and winter months, a lot of people are affected by seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that is caused by a lack of natural daylight. This can bring on symptoms like sadness and poor sleep quality. But studies have shown that through light therapy, many people have seen a reduction in symptoms.
But light therapy might not only be useful for SAD, it could also be used to treat other types of depression where the patient is not getting out into the sunlight as much because they feel unable to leave the house.
When exposed to light therapy, the brain produces more serotonin, which is sometimes known as the ‘happy hormone.’
An active lifestyle isn’t only beneficial to your physical health, it could also help with your mental health. Seniors struggling with depression may find that they find some relief from their symptoms as studies have shown that staying active can fight depression.
Of course, it’s important not to over-exert yourself and take into consideration your abilities and limitations. That said, there is a wide range of activities that seniors can take part in.
For a more mild form of exercise, you could try walking which not only gives you a physical boost but also gets you out of the house. For people whose mobility is limited, you may invest in a mobility aid such as a mobility scooter or take part in chair exercises which can be done from the comfort of your own home.
If you choose to work out at home, there is an array of exercise equipment you can use including things like treadmills and elliptical trainers. Or, if you want to get outdoors, you might choose a tricycle or a handcycle which is easier on the joints. These provide you with an opportunity to join a cycling club where you can improve your social life; particularly good if loneliness has been a struggle for you.
Volunteer to Help Others
A lot of older adults find that they do not have a sense of purpose, and this can bring on feelings of depression. But by acting as a volunteer to help other people, you will feel as though you are achieving something and have a purpose once again.
You might help out in a charity store, serve food at a soup kitchen or visit an elderly neighbor who is unable to get out.
Get a Pet
Something as simple as stroking an animal has been shown to drastically reduce symptoms of depression. In fact, it’s so effective that pet therapy is actually a recognized treatment by mental health experts. There’s even some evidence to suggest that the mere activity of stroking a pet can lower blood pressure and heart rate.
Not only this but a pet can provide companionship for an older adult who is living alone. If loneliness has become a problem, having a dog could alleviate this. Moreover, the seniors will be forced to take their pet out for walks and exercise, which is as good an excuse as any to get out of the house.
Get a Tablet so You Can Videoconference Friends & Family
A lot of seniors find themselves isolated from their friends and family purely because of distance. However, in this modern age, there are lots of smart devices that can help you keep in touch with your loved ones via video calls.
There are smartphones and tablets that are designed to be senior-friendly and have easy-to-use features. You can see your family and friends in real-time and take part in social evenings even when you’re miles apart.
There has been research into how our eating habits affect our mental wellbeing. Amazingly, scientists have discovered that eating a healthy diet could lower the risk of developing depression in the first place.
When you include a variety of colorful fruits and veggies in your diet, these are packed with far more antioxidants than other types of food. As a result of these antioxidants, inflammation in the body is reduced and since inflammation is linked to mental health, it goes without saying that a healthy diet could be an effective treatment.
Useful Resources for Seniors with Depression
If you or a loved one is suffering from depression, there is no need to struggle alone. There are plenty of organizations and helplines you can use that will provide you with support and information.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
By simply calling 998, anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts can be put in touch with a team of helpful and understanding people.
The National Suicide Prevention Helpline aims to provide those struggling and their families with realistic advice, resources, and support, as well as lend an understanding ear. You’ll be put in touch with your local center for the most relevant support in your area.
Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline
If a senior you know is struggling with substance abuse then the SAMHSA helpline can provide information on what resources are available. The team can also refer you to other services that you may find useful.
The service is provided in English and Spanish and can be accessed any time of the day and any day of the year.
Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)
Those struggling with bipolar disorder will often go through depressive episodes and this can be incredibly challenging. The DBSA provides support, education, and information for people living with bipolar and their loved ones.
There are local support groups based all around the United States. Just enter your zip code on the website to be given a list of what’s going on near you.
Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.)
A.A is a global organization that uses a 12-step program to help those struggling with alcohol addiction. You can attend meetings and get support from other people who understand exactly what you are going through.
There are groups running all around the company and you can use the A.A website to find one that is local to you. Groups are free to attend and anyone can join. This also gives you an opportunity to support other people.
Caregiver Action Network (CAN)
It isn’t just seniors struggling with depression that require support; their caregivers and loved ones may need help too. The Caregiver Action Network provides information, tools, and support to more than 90 million Americans that are currently caring for loved ones with chronic conditions.
The website is packed with information, including disease-specific advice, and there is a helpline that you can access directly from the website via Skype.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
NAMI provides a wealth of information for people struggling with their mental health as well as their families. What’s great is that there are some wonderful resources for spotting the signs of depression and other mental health problems, as well as a wealth of information on various mental health conditions.
You can find access to various support groups and take part in walks to support the organization. Information and support are offered in both English and Spanish.