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For seniors taking the next step in their lives, health and healthcare are at the forefront of their minds. One all too common health problem in seniors that is often unfortunately overlooked, however, is depression.

Depression in older adults can be ignored or unnoticed, and it often slips through the cracks. A major reason for this is its confusion with the emotions associated with major life changes, such as grief due to the loss of a loved one or the stress caused by family members moving away — but it is important to understand that depression is more than just a feeling of unhappiness.

Clinical depression continues for weeks and months, and it cripples the basic functions of everyday life. Depression is not a regular part of the aging process. Understanding it starts with accepting that depression is a true medical condition that can be treated, just like diabetes or hypertension. It is important for seniors and their families to seek professional help when it comes to this serious illness.

What Causes Depression?

Depression is a mood disorder that leads to loss of interest and lingering feelings of sadness. Depression affects every aspect of a person’s life and can cause serious emotional and physical problems. The hallmark of depression is not the sadness, but the inability to “snap out of it” — meaning that as life events around you improve and time passes, the sadness continues and you do not feel better.

Depression is a multifaceted disease, and there is no single answer to the question of what causes it. Some factors that cause depression both internally and externally include:

  • Recent and past trauma
  • Illness
  • Stress
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Recent weight change
  • Isolation
  • Relocation
  • Too much or too little sleep
  • Loss of appetite
  • Chronic pain
  • Lack of support network

What can be confusing about depression is that often, the factors that cause depression are similar to the side effects of the disease. Symptoms such as weight gain or loss, too much or too little sleep and loss of appetite can lead to depression or be a result of depression. Scientists believe that biological makeup plays an important role as well. Due to these factors and the major changes that occur in the lives of older adults, depression in seniors can be magnified.

Depression in Seniors

The vast majority of seniors are not depressed, but certain factors that more commonly occur in the lives of seniors can be triggers. A major cause of depression in seniors is an overall decline in health and the feelings surrounding it. Clinical depression affects around 5% of seniors, but those numbers rise, however, when a senior’s health starts to take a turn for the worse. Older hospital patients have an 11.5% depression rate, and 13.5% of seniors who require home health aides suffer from depression.

As other health factors decline, the likelihood of depression increases. Around 80% of older adults suffer from one chronic illness and 50% of older adults suffer from two or more. Depression is common in people who suffer from other illnesses such as cancer or heart disease and the loss of functionality associated with it.

Another thing to consider when discussing depression in seniors is ageism and aging in modern society. Ageism is the stereotyping, discrimination and prejudice against individuals based on their age. Ageism is now being recognized as a major cause of late-life depression. Ageism can come from the outside, especially through the lenses of our youth-obsessed culture, but ageism is just as likely to affect a senior’s disposition on the inside.

Attitudes instilled in people at a young age about seniors being frail and burdens on society cause a feeling of being out of place. The mindset that getting older is a bad thing can prevail throughout life, and once someone reaches a senior age, the awareness of what they perceive to be entering a negative timeframe in their life can cause feelings of sadness and, ultimately, depression. Instead of accepting senior years as just the next wonderful step in a journey, the attitudes that currently prevail can cause seniors to feel isolated and different.

Why It Matters

Older adults often go untreated when it comes to depression. This is a problem with it roots both in how healthcare professionals diagnose illnesses and the overall perception of depression. Doctors may think symptoms are a result of illnesses, medication or life changes if not properly reported. Seniors often do not report their symptoms for the same reasons or because they do not believe that there is anything that can be done to help. Seniors and their loved ones should tell their doctors everything they are feeling. It is important to speak about feelings of depression and discuss how long you or your loved one has been feeling this way.

If left untreated, depression can lead to suicide. Suicide in the elderly accounts for 16.6% of all suicide in the United States despite only representing 13% of the population. Older adults are twice as likely to commit suicide than teenagers. Depression is not and should not be the end of the road — those suffering from depression should seek treatment.

Potential Treatments

Fighting depression is about being proactive. If you or a loved one is showing signs of depression, do not just sit on the sidelines. Seek help from a physician or medical professional. If you think someone you love may be depressed, offer your support. Let them know they can be helped and that there is no problem with seeking help. The best way to combat the stigma of depression and mental health concerns in general is by being supportive and helping to create a supportive environment around them. Offer to go with them to the doctor if it will help, and be there every step of the way. Most people respond well to treatment and see improvements with the help of antidepressant drugs, therapy or a combination of the two. Make sure your loved one knows that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Examine the lifestyle around your senior loved one, and find out what factors can change in order for them to feel the support around them. If your senior loved one is living alone and/or is suffering from health problems, perhaps it is time to discuss moving into an assisted living community. Living at home alone only increases feelings of isolation. The sense of community garnered through assisted living provides a chance to socialize and exercise while making new friends and relationships along the way. The lifestyle enjoyed in an assisted living community is geared towards enjoying life as a senior while providing both emotional and medical support if need be.

Depression is a serious concern in seniors that should not be taken lightly. It is not a normal part of aging, and it should not be ignored. Taking depression seriously and understanding it can be treated is an important step in enjoying how wonderful life as a senior can be.

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