The changes experienced in older adults retirement, loss of loved ones, increased isolation, loss of independence, and medical problems can often lead to depression. Depression affects more than 6.5 million American seniors. Many people with depression in this stage of life have been experiencing episodes of the illness for much of their lives. For others, depression has a first onset in late adulthood. Depression in older adults is closely associated with dependency and disability, and can cause severe suffering for the individual and the family.
Sometimes depression will occur for no apparent reason; nothing necessarily needs to happen in one’s life for depression to occur. This is because depression often is caused by biological changes in the brain. However, for older adults, there are usually understandable triggers for depression. Chronic or serious illness is the most common cause for depression in the elderly. There are also events like the death of a partner or loved one, forced retirement, or loss of independence that can precipitate depression. It is normal for an individual to experience grief or sadness after such an event, but depression goes beyond this normal reaction. Unlike normal sadness or grief, depression often doesn’t go away by itself. Clinical depression usually needs professional treatment.
Depression in later life has significant consequences. First, it increases risk for medical illness. For example, depression, if left untreated, is a risk factor for heart disease and can suppress the immune system, raising the risk of infection. Depression also has the potential to decrease cognitive ability in older adults. Suicide is more common in older adults than in any other age group, and depression is the leading cause of it.
Depression in older adults often goes untreated for a number of reasons. Many people think that depression is a normal part of aging and a natural reaction to illness, loss, and life transitions. Also, many older adults and family members do not recognize the symptoms of depression, are not aware that it is a medical condition, and/or don’t understand that it is treatable. Depression may be mistaken for illnesses such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, cancer, heart disease, or Parkinson’s. Also, many older adults believe that depression is a character flaw, and are slow to admit to suffering from it. They may also blame themselves for feeling depressed, or feel too ashamed to ask for help.
Elderly individuals are much more likely to seek treatment for other physical ailments than they are for depression. For this reason, it is crucial for loved ones and caregivers to recognize the signs and symptoms of depression. Recognizing depression in elderly individuals can be difficult. It may seem like depression and sadness go hand and hand, but often times, older adults suffering from depression claim that they do not feel sad at all. Instead, they may complain of low motivation, lack of energy, or physical problems. Physical complaints, such as arthritic pain or headaches, are often the predominant symptoms of depression in older adults. Other symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, anxiety and worries, memory problems, slowed movement or speech, irritability, loss of interest in hobbies or other pleasurable activities, and neglecting of personal care.
Fortunately, the treatment prognosis for depression in elderly patients is good. Once properly diagnosed, most clinically depressed seniors can be effectively treated. There are a number of treatments available for depression, including supportive counseling and medication. Like arthritis or diabetes, depression is a chronic disease. Getting well is only the first step. Staying well is the goal.
About the Author
Tony Tramelli, M.A.
Tony Tramelli, M.A. received his Masters in Counseling from Webster University with a focus in mental health counseling. Tony has worked with individuals, including children, adolescents, and adults, on a number of issues. These include depression, anxiety, bullying, grief, behavioral issues, academic problems and issues surrounding marital concerns, divorce and family transition.
In addition to working with children and families, Tony provides counseling to older adults and, when applicable, their caregivers, specifically around issues including grief, depression, anger, and life transitions. Tony uses a systems approach, working closely with parents, family members, caregivers, educators and other involved professionals to effectively treat his clients. In addition to Tony’s in-office clinical practice, he provides counseling and consultation services to elementary and secondary schools on-site.