Sadly to say but depression among seniors is a far more common problem than one might expect, but that doesn’t mean it’s a ‘normal’ part of growing old.
In fact, seniors suffering from depression are often overlooked and go untreated, thanks to it being seen as ‘just part of aging’. But what about depression among seniors make it so hard to notice?
Most people have a certain idea of depression, one that involves ‘feeling sad’ as the main aspect. But this is far from the only, or even, the main, symptom of depression. In seniors especially, other symptoms may be more prominent, but harder to notice. Whilst being aware of sadness is important, it’s vital these other aspects don’t get overlooked. So what should you be looking out for?
It’s common as we age for us to need less sleep – it’s why there’s the stereotype as elderly people going to be earlier and getting up at the crack of dawn. But this change in sleep patterns should feel natural, not challenging. If a senior person is complaining about having trouble getting to sleep, waking up frequently throughout the night or other such disturbances, it’s likely not just age, but a symptom of an underlying problem. There are a few things it could be, but one thing is may be is a sign of depression.
Loss of Appetite
Again, losing appetite is common among seniors – taste-buds grow less effective, and we need to eat less food as we age. By itself, this may not be cause for concern, but when appearing alongside other common traits, it’s worth considering. The fact these aspects of depression are also common for other reasons in seniors is part of what makes spotting depression so tricky.
Elderly people often feel like their social circles are shrinking, but this shouldn’t mean that they withdraw. After a dramatic event – a death or illness in a friend – then it’s understandable that one may shrink from socializing, but if this continues and becomes the norm then it may well be another sign that there’s something bigger at play.
If a person is complaining about having little to no energy, feeling listless, fatigued and worn out, then there are a few things it could be. Whilst age does put extra pressure on our systems, it alone doesn’t necessarily lead to this state – so it’s worth exploring what it could be. Whether it’s not eating enough, feeling at a loss since retirement or something like depression, it’s worth taking seriously – even if they don’t think it is.
The second part of the problem is when considering the prevalence of depression in seniors is how often it goes untreated. One of the biggest issues here is persuading a senior person that they don’t have to feel this way, and to seek treatment. Many seniors won’t open up about issues because they don’t want to burden their families – and will outright deny feeling that way even if you confront them on it. So how can you help them get the treatment they need?
Firstly, don’t normalize the things they describe. Try to avoid writing off comments about listlessness or sleep disturbances as ‘just getting old’, but instead validate them as negative things that don’t have to be the case.
Secondly, don’t force the topic – even if you suspect they have depression, you don’t have to confront them using such terms. Many senior people will reject the term and even the possibility of attending psychotherapy. They are more of the generation of “minding-your-own-business for cultural and other variety of reasons. Some of them will associate it with sadness, some won’t understand it, and some will simply feel as though it makes them weak. Instead, talk about the things they will admit to – if they talk about losing appetite; discuss addressing this issue with a doctor, rather than suggesting they go straight to therapy. Taking your time and following their lead can often lead to them actually getting help (even if it starts with just one symptom!) rather than writing the whole thing off.
Edward Francis from Foresth reccomends “…make sure you’re working with professionals who actually understand senior depression. If they’re in a care home, or getting home visits, chat to them about your concerns – and, if they write it off as ‘just getting old’, don’t be afraid to look elsewhere…”
Depression in people of any age is often misunderstood, and this is extra difficult for the elderly, so try to support them and prevent them being overlooked in every way you can. Organizations like Living Well specializes in working with elders who suffer from mental illnesses, often called gero-psychiatric patients. The most common diagnoses in gero-psychiatric patients include depression, dementia, psychosis and anxiety. Seniors with mental illness find it more difficult dealing with adjustments in lifestyle, such as isolation or loss of independence. Medical conditions or physical diseases complicate the challenges they face.
There are not enough mental health facilities nationwide to accommodate elders, or assisted living facilities with specialized services to meet their needs. By providing gero-psychology training for companions and in-home caregivers and promoting the values of dignity, choice, self-determination and individuality, specialized and compassionate professionals close the gap. Every encounter with an elder can be therapeutic, and in reality it takes a village to care for our elders, depressed or not.