Tuesday Tips for Caregivers – Depression Later in Life
Depression is not a natural part of aging and not just a passing mood. Sadness associated with normal grief or everyday “blues” is different from depression. A dad or grieving person can continue to carry on with regular activities. The depressed person suffers from symptoms that interfere with his or her ability to function normally for a prolonged period of time.
Recognizing depression in the elderly is not always easy. It is often difficult for the depressed older adult to describe how he or she is feeling. In addition, the currently population of older Americans came of age at a time when depression was not understood to be a biological disorder and mental illness. Therefore, some elderly fear being labeled “crazy”, or worry that their illness will be seen as a character weakness.
The depressed person or their family members may think that a change in mood or behavior is simply “a passing mood”, and the person should just “snap out of it”. But someone suffering from depression cannot just “get over it”.
Depression is a medical illness that must be diagnosed and treated by trained professionals. Untreated, depression may last months or even years. Untreated depression can:
- Lead to disability
- Worsen symptoms of other illnesses
- Lead to premature death
- Result in suicide
When it is properly diagnosed and treated, more than 80 percent of those suffering from depression recover and return to their normal lives. The most common symptoms of late-life depression include:
- Persistent sadness (lasting two weeks or more)
- Feeling slowed down
- Excessive worries about finances and health problems
- Frequent tearfulness
- Feeling worthless or helpless
- Weight changes
- Pacing and fidgeting
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
- Physical symptoms such as pain or gastrointestinal problems
One important sign of depression is when people withdraw from their regular social activities. Rather than explaining their symptoms as a medical illness, often depressed persons will give different explanations such as “It’s too much trouble,” “I don’t feel well enough,” or “I don’t have the energy.”
For the same reasons, they often neglect their personal appearance, or may begin cooking and eating less. Like many illnesses, there are varying levels and types of depression. A person may not feel “sad” about anything; buy may exhibit symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, weight loss, or physical pain with no apparent explanation. This person still may be clinically depressed. Those same symptoms also may be a sign of another problem – only a doctor can make the correct diagnosis.
Depression Can Happen to Anyone & How Life Changes
Sometimes depression will occur for no apparent reason. In other words, nothing necessarily needs to “happen” in one’s life for depression to occur. This can be because the disease often is caused by biological changes in the brain. However, in older adults, there usually are understandable reasons for the depression.
As the brain and body age, a number of natural bio-chemical changes begin to take place. Changes as the result of aging, medical illness or genetics may put the older adult at a greater risk for developing depression.
Chronic or serious illness is the most common cause of depression in the elderly. But even when someone is struggling with a chronic illness such as arthritis, it is not natural to be depressed. Depression is defined as an illness if it lasts two weeks or more and it affects one’s ability to lead a normal life.
Many factors can contribute to the development of depression. Often people describe one specific event that triggered their depression, such as the death of a partner or loved one, or the loss of a job through layoff or retirement. What seems like a normal period of sadness or grief may lead to a prolonged, intense grief that requires medical attention.
The loss of a life-long partner or a friend is a frequent occurrence in later life. It is normal to grieve after such a loss. But it may be depression rather than bereavement if the grief persists, or is accompanied by any of the following symptoms:
- Guilt unconnected with the love one’s death
- Thought of one’s own death
- Persistent feelings of worthlessness
- Inability to function at one’s usual level
- Difficulty sleeping
- Weight loss
If any of these symptoms are triggered by a loss, a physician should be consulted.
Changes in the older adult’s sensory abilities or environment may contribute to the development of depression. Examples of such changes include:
- Changes in vision and hearing
- Changes in mobility
- Moving from the family home
- Neighborhood changes
In the older population, medical illnesses are a common trigger for depression, and often depression will worsen the symptoms of other illnesses. The following illnesses are common causes of late-life depression:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Heart disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
In addition, certain medical illnesses may hide the symptoms of depression. When a depressed person is preoccupied with physical symptoms resulting from a stroke, gastrointestinal problems, heart disease or arthritis, he or she may attribute the depressive symptoms to an existing physical illness, or may ignore the symptoms entirely. For this reason, he or she may not report the depressive symptoms to his or her doctor, creating a barrier to becoming well.
Caring for a Depressed Person
The first step in helping an older person who may be depressed is to make sure he or she gets a complete physical check-up. Depression may be a die effect of a pre-existing medical condition or of a medication. If the depressed older adult is confused or withdrawn, it is helpful for a caring family member or friend to accompany the person to the doctor and provide important information.
The physician may refer the older adult to a psychiatrist with geriatric training or experience. If a person is reluctant to see a psychiatrist, he or she may need assurance that an evaluation is necessary to determine if the treatment is needed to reduce symptoms, improve functioning and enhance well-being.
It is important to remember that depression is a highly treatable medical condition and is not a normal part of growing older. Therefore, it is crucial to understand and recognize the symptoms of the illness. As with any medical condition, the primary care physician should be consulted if someone has symptoms that interfere with everyday life. An older person who is diagnosed with depression also should know that there are trained professionals who specialize in treating the elderly called geriatric psychiatrist, who may be able to help.
To contact ElderCare at Home
If you or someone else you know would like more information, you can call us at (888) 285-0093 or email us below. Thanks for joining us today and we’ll see you again next week!