Recognizing depression in older adults

Family caregivers and friends can help older adults with depression by recognizing the environmental causes and symptoms of depression.

According to the Geriatric Education Center of Michigan at Michigan State University, depression in older adults can seriously affect their quality of life and health. Stress, depression and anxiety can contribute to physical ailments including digestive disorders, sleep disturbances and lack of energy. Older adults who are depressed can also have an increased risk of substance abuse, reduced cognition, higher risk of suicide and a higher incidence of heart attacks.

Older adults can experience different reasons and risk factors for depression than younger adults., a research-based website in collaboration with Harvard Medical School, says that common reasons and risk factors for depression in older adults can include:

  • Health problems – Illness and disability, chronic or severe pain, cognitive decline, damage to body image due to surgery or disease.
  • Loneliness and isolation – Living alone; a dwindling social circle due to deaths or relocation; decreased mobility due to illness or loss of driving privileges.
  • Reduced sense of purpose – Feelings of purposelessness or loss of identity due to retirement or physical limitations on activities.
  • Fears – Fear of death or dying; anxiety over financial problems or health issues.
  • Recent bereavements – The death of friends, family members, and pets; the loss of a spouse or partner.

Michigan State University Extension says that ways you can help are to learn about and recognize the signs and symptoms of depression in older adults and the elderly. Common symptoms include sadness, fatigue, abandoning or losing interest in hobbies or other pleasurable pastimes, social withdrawal and isolation (reluctance to be with friends, engage in activities, or leave home), weight loss or loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, loss of self-worth, increased use of alcohol or other drugs, or a fixation on death, suicidal thoughts or attempts.

Is it depression or dementia? According to Harvard Health Publications, here are some signs to watch for:

  • With depression, mental decline can happen quickly, but with dementia, mental decline happens more slowly.
  • When someone is depressed, they still know things like the correct time, date and where they are, but with dementia, they become confused and disoriented and sometimes lost in familiar locations.
  • With depression, people have a hard time concentrating, and they may worry about memory problems. People with dementia have short-term memory loss and don’t notice memory problems or seem to care.
  • When someone is depressed, language and motor skills are slow, but normal, whereas someone with dementia has impaired writing, speaking and motor skills.

There is good news! According to a study published by Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publications, for those who stuck with treatment, depression resolved in seven out of 10 people. Completing a treatment regime can increase positive mood, strengthen personal relationships, increase satisfaction in activities of daily living and help people feel like themselves again.

If you are concerned that your loved one is suffering from depression as an older adult, help them connect to their primary care provider to assess the situation and to identify health and community resources to help them restore their quality of life.

For more information on depression read Depression Symptoms and Warning Signs.

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