Elderly Depression—A Silent, Dangerous Disease

Old Person Walking With Cane

Depression in people over 65 years old is one of the most often overlooked illnesses in the United States today. Even mild depression in the elderly can lead to suicide if not diagnosed at an early stage. How many times have you heard someone say of their elderly loved one, “She is just slowing down?” or, “He has his good days and his bad days?” One reason elderly depression is not diagnosed is that the observed symptoms are believed to be related to the aging process, a sometimes dangerous misconception.

The causes of elderly depression are many. External causes of late-life depression include changes in residence or circumstances, loss of financial independence, and general loneliness. Internal or medical causes of depression in older people can include chronic medical conditions and loss of physical independence.

Increased agitation, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and temper might be signs that an older loved one is suffering from depression.  Some factors that are known to contribute to depression in the elderly are short term memory loss, lifestyle changes, and the loss of a spouse.

All of us have heard the story of a couple who has been happily married for 30 or more years, after which the husband or wife passes on. The formerly healthy, by now lonely, surviving spouse suddenly takes a turn for the worse and follows shortly after.  If you think this only happens in movies like <i>The Notebook</i> think again. It truly shows how powerful an influence our mental state can have over our physical well being.

Depression in the elderly is not a part of the normal aging process.  Everyone gets the blues occasionally, but if the blues begin to hamper normal everyday functioning, there could be a deeper root cause.

Elderly depression can be lessened and sometimes even cured by basic external stimulation. One of the simplest (and cheapest) ways to help elderly depression is to sharpen that mind on the whetstone of interaction. Our brains are just like our muscles: if you don’t exercise your brain you will lose the ability to use it effectively. For many years I worked in the medical transportation field as a driver taking elderly and handicapped people to and from their medical appointments in wheelchair equipped vans. I can’t tell you how many times I have gone into a nursing home and realized at least 50% of the residents are lying in front of their television sets doing nothing.  If any of those folks are suffering from short term memory loss, I don’t think it’s getting any better.  Some of the nursing homes I have been in didn’t really offer much in the way of elderly activities.  Help an elderly person get some brain exercise. A game of gin rummy or checkers can provide positive stimulation, as can Sudoku and crossword puzzles. Reading a book forces the imagination into activity, and is great exercise for the mind. I enjoy playing gin with my mom, who is 82 years old, because she is truly devious and evil and will show no mercy when it comes to winning at card games.

Another great idea, with doctor approval, is to just get out of the house and sit on your front or back porch, or even by an open window.  The touch of a cool breeze or warm sunlight is always healing if one spends much time indoors.

On the clinical side, there are many options for treatment also.  Effective medical treatment for improved elderly mental health depends of the individual and their circumstances.

Get your doctor involved.  How long has it been since you or your loved one has had a complete physical? Have your doctor go over current medications. If elderly depression is diagnosed by your physician there are many antidepressants on the market that may work for you. It has been shown that older persons suffering from depression who continued to take their prescribed medications as directed were 60% less likely to relapse than those who discontinued their medications as soon as their symptoms disappeared.

Another option for late-life depression treatment is psychotherapy. A psychotherapist is a trained health professional who helps in dealing with elderly depression, thoughts of suicide and other problems.  A combination of medication and psychotherapy has been shown to be very beneficial in most cases of depression in the elderly.

Whatever medical treatment works best for you or your family, remember that there will never be a replacement for compassion, love, and empathy.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “older Americans are disproportionately likely to die by suicide,” making early intervention critical.

  • Although they comprise only 12 percent of the U.S. population, people age 65 and older accounted for 16 percent of suicide deaths in 2004.
  • 14.3 of every 100,000 people age 65 and older died by suicide in 2004, higher than the rate of about 11 per 100,000 in the general population.
  • Non-Hispanic white men age 85 and older were most likely to die by suicide. They had a rate of 49.8 suicide deaths per 100,000 persons in that age group.

Elderly depression in nursing homes is rampant in the United States.  If you do need to place an elderly family member or friend in a home, do some research. Find out what daily activities and what kind and quality of food the facility offers. Above all, VISIT OFTEN.

All of us, especially the elderly, need to feel useful and wanted in order to thrive. It’s a universal, overwhelmingly human need.

If you or an older loved one needs help right away you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). It is available to anyone 24 hours a day seven days a week.  You can call for someone you love or for yourself.  All calls will be kept confidential.

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