Understanding the Growing Problem of Depression in the Elderly

Sad lonely pensive old senior woman

Depression, a topic that was once taboo in mainstream society, has finally begun to earn the attention it deserves. However, one aspect of depression continues to go undetected in most circles – and that’s geriatric depression, or depression in the elderly. The longer this issue goes without being addressed, the more catastrophic the results will be.

Understanding Geriatric Depression

Statistically speaking, geriatric depression doesn’t appear to be a major problem. According to the CDC, just 1 to 5 percent of elderly individuals suffer from depression. However, that figure rises to 11.5 percent in older hospital patients and 13.5 percent in those requiring home healthcare. And when you consider that 80 percent of older adults have at least one chronic health condition, while 50 percent have two or more – numbers that are increasing over time – the potential for depression is always right around the corner.

Part of what makes geriatric depression challenging is that it’s often difficult to identify, even when doctors and loved ones are on the lookout for it.

“Depression in older adults may be difficult to recognize because they may show different symptoms than younger people,” National Institute on Aging says. “For some older adults with depression, sadness is not their main symptom. They may have other, less obvious symptoms of depression, or they may not be willing to talk about their feelings.”

As a result of not being able to readily identify depression, elderly individuals are often misdiagnosed and undertreated for depression. As the CDC explains, “Healthcare providers may mistake an older adult’s symptoms of depression as just a natural reaction to illness or the life changes that may occur as we age, and therefore not see the depression as something to be treated. Older adults themselves often share this belief and do not seek help because they don’t understand that they could feel better with appropriate treatment.”

It’s important to note that depression is not a normal part of aging. However, it is a common part of aging. This distinction can be challenging to grasp, especially when an elderly loved one is dealing with a combination of physical and emotional issues.

How to Address Depression in the Elderly 

Elderly individuals are more likely to suffer from subsyndromal depression, which is a type of depression that’s less serious than other types (and usually doesn’t meet the qualifications of major depression). However, left untreated, it can lead to major depression.

Major depression involves a number of severe symptoms that mess with an individual’s ability to eat, sleep, work, concentrate, and enjoy life. Episodes can last for long periods of time and can become detrimental to an individual’s physical and mental well being, especially when other immune-compromising illnesses are involved.

A proactive approach to geriatric depression is always preferred. But even after the onset of depression, causes and symptoms can be addressed with great results. Here are a few of the different things that can be done help:

  1. Recognize Triggers

There are certain triggers that can make depression worse in elderly individuals. By understanding what these triggers are, loved ones and healthcare professionals can ensure they aren’t a contributing factor.

For example, something as simple as light can influence geriatric depression. According to one study of 863 elderly participants, exposure to light in the bedroom may increase the risk of experiencing depression. By keeping the bedroom as dark as possible during sleep times, individuals find it easier to fall asleep and wake up feeling more satisfied.

Other common causes include chronic pain, financial hardships, and death of friends and loved ones. Issues like these should not be pushed under the rug.

  1. Get Exercise

“Exercise is a powerful depression treatment,” HelpGuide.org explains. “In fact, research suggests it can be just as effective as antidepressants. And you don’t have to suffer through a rigorous workout to reap the benefits.”

Getting up and moving is the key. Jogging around the block or walking on the treadmill for a few minutes can be enough to release endorphins.

  1. Try Therapy

Psychotherapy, also known as “talk therapy,” is helpful for many geriatric patients dealing with depression. The simple act of talking through issues, whether with a support group or one-on-one with a therapist, can help the individual understand their issues and sort through complicated problems.

  1. Consider Medication

In serious situations where healthy behavioral changes don’t improve depression symptoms, it may be worth looking into medication as a possible solution.

“Most antidepressants are generally safe, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that all antidepressants carry black box warnings, the strictest warnings for prescriptions,” National Institute of Aging explains. “The warning says that patients of all ages taking antidepressants should be watched closely, especially during the first few weeks of treatment.”

If the individual is already taking other medications, it’s imperative to consult with a doctor to understand any possible adverse drug interactions. It’s also important to stay on the medication for a period of time, even if the patient starts to feel better. Stopping abruptly can cause withdrawal symptoms.

 Solving Depression Across the Board

 Whether it’s depression in adolescents, adults, or the elderly, the healthcare community needs to come together and continue to address the underlying issues. While treating symptoms of depression is important, it’s much more effective to deal with the causal factors. And until we do this, depression will continue to be a serious problem in this country.

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