August 23, 2021
Clinical depression affects about 6 million older Americans. In fact, depression among older adults and the elderly is so prevalent that the National Institute of Mental Health considers it a major public health problem—one that increases a person’s risk for heart disease and other illnesses, as well as suicide.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of challenges to the mental health of older Americans. Even in “normal” times, seniors faced risk factors like social isolation, financial challenges, illness and loss. The pandemic has elevated all of those factors.
Learn how to identify the signs of depression in the elderly and what to do if you or a loved one experiences these symptoms.
Signs of Depression
Retirement, physical ailments, the loss of a spouse, or feelings that life lacks purpose can all trigger depression. The symptoms are often confused with other illnesses or side effects of medication. Here are some signs to look for:
- Unexplained or aggravated aches and pains
- Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, or worthlessness
- Anxiety, worries, irritability, a pervasive sense of guilt
- Memory problems, slowed movement and speech
- Lack of motivation and energy and loss of interest in socializing and hobbies
- An inability to function or neglecting personal hygiene, skipping meals, forgetting medications
- Thoughts of suicide or preoccupation with dying
- Seeing or hearing things that are not there
Could it be Grief or Dementia?
Grief and depression share similar symptoms and it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference. Grief involves many emotions, with the person experiencing good and bad days, along with moments of pleasure. Depression is a constant feeling of emptiness and despair.
With dementia, mental decline is rapid. A depressed person knows the correct time, date and where they are, while someone with dementia is confused, disoriented and gets lost in familiar locations. A depressed person may have difficulty concentrating, while someone with dementia has short-term memory loss.
Ways to Stave Off Depression
Depression does not have to be the norm for older Americans. Learning new skills and activities to enjoy can happen at any age. Here are some tips to keep active and feel better – physically, mentally and socially.
- Exercise. Stay active. It may be just as effective as antidepressants in relieving depression. Even small things like light housework or short walks can help.
- Stay in touch with others. Even if you don’t feel like it, keep in touch by phone or email, get out of the house, or invite a friend or loved one to visit. It’s never too late to build new friendships, or join a group of people with similar interests.
- Get enough sleep. 7 to 9 hours each night are recommended.
- Eat healthy meals, making it a point to avoid too much sugar and junk food.
- Volunteer, care for a pet, or find a good movie or book that makes you laugh.
When to Get Professional Help
During your annual wellness check-up, your doctor will likely screen you for depression by asking a few standard questions. And it is always a good idea to bring up the topic if you are experiencing depression, even if it is mild. Depression impacts all areas of your health and well-being. Your doctor will carefully evaluate your medical history, perform a physical exam, and work with you to determine the best course of action.