Most of us imagine retirement as a time of bliss. We finally get the time to travel the world, and we can do just about anything we want because we don’t have to worry about work. But in reality, many seniors suffer from depression. Some seniors find that their golden years are some of the loneliest and unfulfilling.
Seniors go through many changes as they age, which can contribute to the development of depression. The loss of loved ones, stressful life events and major medical problems can all lead to the onset of depression.
Depression is a common issue among seniors – more than 2 million seniors in the U.S. have depression. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a normal part of the aging process.
It’s important to understand the signs, symptoms and types of depression in seniors so you can spot the red flags early on.
3 Main Types of Depression
There are many different types of depression, but the three main types include:
Persistent Depressive Disorder
With persistent depressive disorder, the symptoms are far less severe, but they last much longer (two years or more).
Major depression symptoms are severe and interfere with everyday life activities, like sleeping, working, eating and enjoying life.
The symptoms of minor depression are less severe, and do not last long.
The Signs and Symptoms of Depression
Depression can cause a number of symptoms, and it’s easy to confuse these symptoms with another illness or issue.
The most common signs and symptoms of depression in older adults include:
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Feeling anxious, sad or “empty” on a regular basis
- Feelings of guilt, helplessness and worthlessness
- Trouble remembering things, concentrating or making decisions
- Loss of interest in hobbies and other activities that once brought them joy
- Trouble sleeping or oversleeping
- Thoughts of suicide
- Appetite changes
- Irritability or restlessness
- Digestive issues, aches, pains, cramps and headaches that have no other explanation and are not eased by treatment
Depression affects older adults in a different way than it affects younger adults. In seniors, it often occurs in conjunction with other medical issues and disabilities. Depression may also last longer.
In addition, depression may also increase the risk of cardiac diseases and risk of death from an illness.
Risk Factors of Depression
Depression can affect any senior, but there are risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing this condition.
One issue is that many seniors lose their support systems as they age due to the death of siblings or a spouse. They may relocate or retire, which can also mean losing friends and being far away from family members.
The risk of depression is much higher among:
- Those with poor sleeping habits
- Those who have a chronic medical illness, such as diabetes, heart disease or cancer
- Those who have disabilities
- Those who are socially isolated or lonely
Other depression risk factors include:
- Brain disease
- Personal or family history of depression
- The use of certain medications
- Drug or alcohol abuse
Clinical depression can also be caused by other chronic illnesses that are common in old age, such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, heart disease and even arthritis.
The Effects of Depression
Depression can affect a senior’s day-to-day activities, or change their behaviors in unhealthy ways.
If left untreated, depression can cause a person to eat too much, leading to obesity. Conversely, depression can also lead to undereating and geriatric anorexia.
Those with depression are also more likely to develop insomnia and memory loss. Their reaction time may be altered, too, which could make cooking, driving and taking medication difficult or dangerous.
Getting Help and Treatment Options
The thought of a loved one having depression can be distressing, but in most cases, it is treatable in older adults.
It’s important not to ignore the signs of depression, as this is a medical condition that won’t just go away on its own.
The first step to getting help is talking to a doctor or health care provider. The doctor will perform a physical exam to rule out any other medical condition and review the person’s medical history.
The doctor will also ask a series of standard questions to screen for depression.
The doctor can refer the patient to a psychologist, social worker, counselor a psychiatrist to begin treatment. These professionals are trained to treat depression and emotional issues in seniors.
Depression is typically treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Every patient is different, so the doctor may recommend a different combination of treatments.
Some seniors may also be reluctant to open up about their feelings, which can make it more challenging for doctors to properly diagnose the condition.
Antidepressants may be prescribed, which can offer quick relief from depression symptoms. Some of these medications do have side effects that can be uncomfortable, but they typically lessen over time.
The medication aspect of depression treatment needs to be monitored closely. Seniors are typically on other medications to manage other medical conditions. Be sure to discuss concerns about drug interactions with your pharmacist or your doctor.
Seniors should not stop taking antidepressants without the help of their doctors.
Psychotherapy is also used in conjunction with medication to help treat depression. Therapists help patients form new thinking patterns, behaviors and habits to overcome depression.
Some research suggests that psychotherapy can be more effective at treating mild depression than antidepressants. Still, it’s important to talk to your doctor about which treatment is best.
Exercise has also been known to help reduce depression and stress. If you aren’t getting enough exercise this is a good place to start.
ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy)
Medication and psychotherapy is the conventional protocol for treating depression. But some doctors also recommend ECT, or electroconvulsive therapy.
ECT is especially helpful for seniors who cannot take medication because of interactions or side effects, or those with severe depression symptoms that interfere with daily activities.
If you or an elderly loved one are suffering from depression, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. This is a very common condition, and there are effective treatment options that can help you or a loved one start enjoying life again.
Tim is a professional caregiver who has helped hundreds of seniors gain back their freedom and independence. He has been actively helping the senior community for 20+ years.