When it comes to senior health care, much of the emphasis on staying healthy focuses on physical issues. Appropriate health screenings, routine medical checkups and management of chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart disease each playing an important role. But in the drive to make sure a person remains physically healthy as they get older, the mental health aspects of aging are often overlooked. As a result, undiagnosed depression is a surprisingly common issue among older adults.
Depression is often misunderstood, whether it occurs in a senior population or in younger people. For those who don't suffer from chronic depression, the deep feelings of sadness and hopelessness that accompany clinical depression can be difficult to fully grasp. As a result, many depressive symptoms are disregarded or written off as “adjustment” issues relating to the process of growing older. And that means many, many seniors suffer in silence, their quality of life severely diminished and their physical health suffering as well.
Recognizing the Symptoms of Depression
Depression is far more likely to occur in seniors with chronic health conditions or limited mobility. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 80 percent of seniors have one chronic medical condition like heart disease, high blood pressure, advanced osteoarthritis or diabetes, and about half of all seniors have two or more chronic conditions, making them highly susceptible to depression as well. CDC data also reports nearly 14 percent of seniors receiving home health care services suffer from depression, as well as almost 12 percent of seniors in hospital settings.
Knowing the signs of depression is the first step in ensuring a loved one receives the care that's needed to help reduce feelings of sadness or hopelessness and prevent mental and physical health from deteriorating. Here's what you should be looking for:
- Feelings of hopelessness, sadness, worthlessness, guilt and/or pessimism
- Lack of interest in surroundings or activities, especially activities which were once enjoyable
- Decreased energy
- Spending more time sleeping or lying in bed, or the reverse – difficulty sleeping
- Restlessness, moodiness, irritability or mood changes
- Talking about death or suicide or attempting suicide
- Loss of appetite often accompanied by weight loss
- Vague aches, pains and medical complaints that don't resolve with treatment
- Problems concentrating, remembering and making decisions
- Periods of crying
- Desire to spend increasing amounts of time alone
If you're a caregiver for a loved one who lives far away, recognizing these symptoms can be difficult. Checking in with your loved one's senior health care provider and staying in regular contact with your loved one are important tools in helping identify depressive issues and ensuring the most appropriate treatment is made available as soon as possible and on a regular and continuing basis.
Many seniors can benefit from the same types of treatments as younger adults, including anti-depressant medications and individual or group therapy sessions. Getting regular exercise can also help by stimulating the release of “feel good” chemicals in the brain. Keeping your loved one engaged with activities and social outings is also important, but typically, seniors who are suffering from depression are far less likely to engage with others, making it much more difficult to get them to become involved. Having medication or therapy in place first can often make other interventions, like increased social activity, much easier to incorporate into a care plan.
Knowing a loved one is depressed can cause lots of anxiety, but remember: Recognizing depression is the first step in getting care. Screening for signs of depression should be a part of every senior health care plan. If your loved one hasn't been screened, arrange to have screening at the first sign of depression or ask for screening during their next doctor's exam so they can get the care they need to relieve pervasive feelings of sadness and start enjoying life again.