Depression and the Elderly


If you work with the elderly for very long you soon realize that one of the major challenges in that work is recognizing and treating depression.


One of the ongoing challenges presented by depression is that to many people the symptoms of depression are often very similar to dementia.  For this reason alone, if you are caring for an elderly person who seems to be suffering from dementia, it is critical to have that individual also examined by a qualified medical professional to check whether the symptoms being presented are actually a result of depression.  The elder in your care may also be suffering from both as well.


In an earlier post, I noted the sadness that is associated with growing older.  Sadness is not the same thing as depression, but may be a symptom of it.  As we journey through life, we will almost inevitably find ourselves in situations that make us sad, and that is even more the case with the elderly.  Our bodies start to fall apart, we experience more pain, and we can’t move around with the same agility we once took for granted.  Our children move away and become focused on their own lives, their spouses, and their children.  We find ourselves searching for meaning in our lives beyond the roles of parent and grandparent, waiting patiently for some opportunity to be involved in the lives of our families.  These adjustments in our place in the world often bring on sadness.


Being aware of the difference between the sadness described above and the far greater threat of full-on depression is critical.  Depression in the young might produce more symptoms that appear to be sadness:  emotional fragility and weeping.  In the elderly, depression may manifest itself in physical symptoms (more pain and difficulty moving) and withdrawing from activities with friends and family.


Add to this, recent studies show that depression is only diagnosed in a small fraction of the elderly suffering from it, in part because they are loath to seek help due to the stigma attached to mental illness in general and depression in particular.  Even in these supposedly more modern times, we still tend to view with moral blame and sanctimony illnesses affecting the brain where we would be more supportive and caring if the illness affected, say, the pancreas, liver or heart.


When it comes to treatment, that which works with younger individuals may not be so effective with the elderly.  Mental health professionals skilled in treating the elderly need to be consulted.  Depression, left untreated, also can affect the progress of other diseases that require treatment.  It may take a number of visits and intervention by a coordinated team of professionals to sort out what the symptoms present, their effect on other diseases and conditions, and the appropriate regime of treatment to address the complexity of the situation.

Don’t let depression deprive the elderly of the joy of their remaining years of life – make sure they get the diagnosis and treatment they need and deserve.