Barbara's Blog

Depression in the Elderly

Depression is often viewed by the elderly as a character flaw. It is an illness that requires recognition and treatment. A common misconception regards depression as just a part of normal aging, but that is not the case. The elderly have only a 1-5% (1) higher incident than the normal population.

It is certainly understandable for the elderly to have periods of sadness because they have experienced the deaths of friends, decreased health, moving from the family home, anxiety about the future, evaluating the past and questioning their legacy. “Younger people think that retirement will be easy with not having the stress of work and family commitments, but often senior citizens have depression that is caused by losses of independence, health, and relationships. Additionally, it is magnified by the isolation and loss of social supports.” (2)

Adult children caregivers often ask the wrong question. “Are you depressed?” is not helpful because the elderly do not recognize the symptoms. They also do not want to admit they have a problem and may also be very private about expressing feelings. More direct and specific questions are needed.

-What did you do for fun today?
-What did you eat for lunch?
-How are you sleeping?
-What are your plans for this week?

Some of the symptoms of depression in anyone at any age, including the Adult Child Caregiver, are:

-Avoiding activities that were once fun and enjoyable
-Stopping being social – isolation
-Avoiding leaving the house
-Losing interest in food – nutrition, hydration
-Having problems sleeping
-Experiencing a change in mood or personality
-Being anxious, suspicious, irritable, or having unusual behaviors
-Contemplating suicide

There are many safe and effective treatment options available. A healthcare professional who specializes in eldercare can prescribe the correct medication and determine the best dosage. Because the elderly have many other illnesses and medications, it is very important to explore the best ways to treat the depression through medicine, change of life style, change of think, and more.

Caregivers are often so busy just getting all the tasks done that are associated with Mom and Dad, that there is little opportunity to assess all the components (aspects) of parent’s lives. Assess all of Mom’s and Dad’s needs so everyone knows what assistance they need. Take time to fill out an objective Needs Assessment Checklist which should include: Finances, Personal Care, Transportation, General Health, Medications, Doctor Appointments, Memory, Emotional Status, and Household Chores. (3)

There are activities that can help alleviate sadness or depression. Whether one is the caregiver or the next door neighbor, everyone can “Just say ‘Hello’”. Oprah started this project when she was informed about isolation and its significance to the well being of all people. Humans are very social beings, and need interaction, hugs, and eye contact. Everyone can make a difference in an elder’s life by just saying “hello” and encouraging them participate by themselves or with others…

-Attend events at local senior center, social club, or church
-Exercise, take a walk, garden
-Reconnect with old friends
-Start a new hobby or revisit old ones
-Collect coupons to area restaurants
-Eat healthy
-Care for a pet
-Turn on the music
-Watch a funny movie

Depression and the early signs of dementia may look similar. Jumping to the conclusion that Mom has Alzheimer’s because she seems distracted or depressed is a normal conclusion because of all the attention given to dementias. There are however many other illnesses that look like dementia such as UTI, mourning, vitamin deficiencies, malnutrition, dehydration, drug interactions and other treatable diagnoses including depression. Obtaining a complete and thorough check-up and a diagnosis are essential in determining the undying cause of the depression. Depression can be treated. Mom can feel better and reclaim her life!

(2) Donald O. Mack, MD CMD, association professor, The Ohio State Medical Center
(3) A complete list is available in Before Things Fall Apart: the essential workbook on caring for Mom and Dad at

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