Late-life depression affects about 6 million Americans ages 65 and older, but unfortunately, only about 10% get treatment. This may be because depression in older adults is often confused with the effects of multiple different illnesses and the medicines used to treat them, as well as simply getting older, and it’s sometimes overlooked as something more serious.
If a loved one is experiencing symptoms of depression, it’s important to help them understand they are not alone and should reach out to their doctor to create a treatment plan that can include medication, therapy, and other lifestyle changes. There are also a few things you can do to help your loved one if they are suffering.
What Is Depression?
Depression is a serious mood disorder that can affect the way you think, feel, and act. The major depressive disorder includes symptoms lasting at least two weeks that interfere with a person’s ability to perform daily tasks. Other types of depression include persistent depressive disorder, depressive disorder due to a medical condition, postmenopausal depression, seasonal affective disorder, and others.
Believed to be caused by faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetics, stressful life events, medications, and/or other medical conditions, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that nearly 300 million people worldwide have depression. Recent studies show that more than 23% of U.S. adults reported symptoms of depressive disorder in the last seven days between April 23, 2020, and July 11, 2022.
Signs And Symptoms of Depression
Older adults may experience a number of signs and symptoms of depression, some different than what younger adults experience, such as:
• Feeling tired
• Trouble sleeping
• Feeling grumpy or irritable
• Feeling confused
• Difficulty paying attention
• Not enjoying activities they used to
• Moving more slowly
• Change in weight or appetite (increase or decrease)
• Feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty
• Aches and pains
Many of these symptoms are confused with or believed to be a part of just getting older, but they are not normal. If a loved one is experiencing these symptoms, they can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline, or contact their doctor for help.
How Depression Differs in Older Adults
In older people, depression often goes along with other medical illnesses and disabilities. It also lasts longer. Depression is tied to a higher risk of cardiac disease and a reduction of the ability to rehabilitate and heal from injury or illness, leading to an increased risk of death. Plus, older adults may not always have the obvious signs of depression, so can be trickier to identify.
Advancing age comes with the loss of social support systems, changes in circumstances, and the fact that older people are expected to slow down. These changes can be difficult to handle and accept, which can lead to feelings of depression.
Supporting Friends and Family with Depression
If you have an elderly loved one suffering from depression, it’s helpful to know some of the ways you can help and support them:
Talk Openly About Any Concerns You Have About Depression
If you suspect they are suffering, ask them about how they are feeling. Try to understand the root cause of their feelings. Ask questions like “can you think of anything that may have triggered it,” “what makes you feel worse,” or “are you under stress”? Avoid judgment or minimizing their problems and avoid giving advice. Simply listen to their answers.
Educate Yourself About Depression and Other Mood Disorders
Understanding the signs and symptoms, causes, and treatments can help you better empathize with what they are going for. Not only can this help you feel more in control, but it can also help you to have more patience when helping them.
Seek Professional Help
Seeing a trusted psychiatrist can significantly help people struggling with depression, especially those who have gone through major life stresses. Your loved one can work with a psychiatrist on a treatment plan with or without medication to get them back to feeling their best. It’s important your loved one sticks with the treatment plan the doctor prescribes, so do what you can to help them if they will accept it.
Support Their Treatment and Progress
Provide whatever assistance the person needs and is willing to accept. For example, you can help them make and get to appointments, research medication or treatment options and offer suggestions, or refill prescriptions.
Help them to be active. Participate in activities they enjoy and encourage them to take part in some physical activity, even if it’s just taking a leisurely walk outside or doing some light yoga. It can also help to prioritize the importance of spending time with friends and family and participating in social activities.
Help your loved one when possible with tasks not related to their health, such as offering to help with household chores, running errands for them, cooking meals, or other things they may need.
Finally, it can help to lead by example. Do your best to maintain a positive outlook, exercise, and lean on others for your own support.
Take Care of Yourself
You can’t help your loved one if you’re not feeling your best yourself. It’s important for you to stay healthy; it won’t do your loved ones any good if you’re stressed or don’t have the energy to help care for them. Don’t forget to set and keep boundaries and seek support from other friends and family when you need it.