Senior Mental Health: Is Depression Normal?

Senior Mental Health: Is Depression Normal?


The month of May is mental health awareness month, and while people of all ages suffer from mental health concerns, older adults have additional physical and life-changing circumstances that may impact them. As people age, it is more common for them to experience the death of a spouse, a family member, loved ones, or even a pet that will affect their state of mind.

Depression is a mood disorder that can affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities such as eating, sleeping, and connecting with others. While depression in seniors is common, it’s not a normal part of aging. However, the risk of depression in seniors increases when other chronic health conditions, such as cancer and heart disease, are present. It can also be a byproduct of isolation, which becomes more common among older adults.

According to the National Institute on Aging, 80% of seniors have at least one chronic health condition, and nearly 50% have two or more, which dramatically increases the risk of depression. While feeling occasional sadness is a normal part of life, long-lasting depression is not. Depression requires medical treatment. Other conditions can mimic depression, so it’s important to be able to spot the symptoms and signs of depression to help you know when it’s time for medical intervention.

Signs and Symptoms of Depression in Older Adults

Adults experiencing depression will often have feelings of sadness and anxiety that consistently last for weeks at a time. While depression can look and feel different for each individual, some common symptoms can act as warning signs. People who are depressed might experience any of the following:

  • Feelings of despair, hopelessness, or chronic pessimism
  • Loss of interest in activities and hobbies that usually provide joy and comfort
  • Overeating or loss of appetite
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Fatigue and changes in sleeping habits
  • Memory problems, difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Neglecting personal care such as skipping meals, forgetting medication, and neglecting personal hygiene
  • Thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts

Causes of Depression in Older Adults

While there is no single cause of depression in seniors, there are biological, social, and psychological factors that can contribute to depression. Complications and significant life changes associated with aging can also increase the risk of depression in older adults. Here are some of the most common causes of depression:

Health problems. Chronic conditions are common among older adults and can contribute to feelings of depression. Depression is often linked to illness, chronic or severe pain, and cognitive decline.

Loneliness and isolation. Living alone, losing a spouse or friends, and decreased mobility due to aging can be hard to cope with and often lead to feelings of depression. Sometimes it may be hard to know if you are suffering from grief or depression. Grief tends to be more of a rollercoaster with a wide range of emotions, while depression may be a constant feeling of despair and emptiness.

Loss of purpose. Transitioning from work to retirement can often cause a loss of identity, status, and financial security and lead to depression.

Genetic factors. Those with a family history of depression are more likely to develop it than those who do not have a history of the illness.

Personal history. Older adults who have experienced depression in their younger years are more at risk for developing depression later in life.

Brain chemistry and anatomy. People with depression have different brain chemistry than those without the illness. In fact, according to Harvard Health, the part of the brain called the hippocampus—which plays a role in learning, emotions, and memory—is smaller in some depressed people.

Stress. Life doesn’t always go the way we’ve imagined. Difficult relationships, fears, prolonged substance abuse, and traumatic life events can all trigger depression in seniors.

Depression and Other Illnesses

According to the National Institute on Aging, depression—especially in older adults—often occurs with other serious medical conditions such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease. It’s not uncommon for these conditions to be made worse by depression. Depression can also occur when one is diagnosed with serious or terminal health conditions. Medication used to treat these illnesses can also cause side effects that contribute to depression and anxiety. However, doctors who are well versed in treating these illnesses will help find the best treatment and solutions.

How to Help a Parent with Depression

If you suspect your loved one is suffering from depression, it can be difficult to know how to approach the topic. Whether you notice your parent disengaging from friends and family, avoiding activities they once enjoyed, or displaying any of the warning signs listed above—talking with your loved one about their behavior can lead them to receive the treatment they need. As you prepare to talk with your loved one, you might consider using these tips to frame your discussion:

  • Stay calm. It’s completely normal to feel anxious about the conversation you’re about to have with your loved one. Depression is often a personal topic and can be uncomfortable to share with someone else. As you ask your loved one about how they’ve been feeling, take their answers in stride. Your calmness may encourage them to open up more and share more candidly.
  • Offer a support system. If there are obvious contributors to your loved one’s depression, such as loneliness, work together to find a solution. Scheduling family and friends to visit or call each day, spending meal times together, or even considering making moving arrangements could help eliminate some of the factors contributing to the depression.
  • Suggest treatment options. Once your loved one is ready to address their depression, you might consider making an appointment with their healthcare provider to discuss treatment options.

Treatment Options for Depression

Many older adults find improvement in their depression symptoms when treated with antidepressant medications, psychotherapy, and through making small lifestyle changes. Finding the right treatment can take time, so don’t get discouraged.

Medications: Some medical providers might prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), or tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs).

Lifestyle changes: Increasing physical activities, creating time for a new hobby, having regular visits with friends and family, getting enough sleep, and prioritizing a well-balanced diet can all help reduce feelings of depression. These adjustments in daily life are linked to decreasing depression in seniors.

Therapy: In addition to, or instead of, prescribing medication, many healthcare providers might suggest some form of therapy as part of a treatment plan. Talk therapy with a trained therapist can help those struggling with depression talk through their feelings in a safe and confidential environment. Art therapy has also shown to be very effective in treating depression. Painting, pottery, and sculpting can be used to promote self-expression and facilitate conversations about feelings and emotions. Pet therapy can also be extremely helpful for older adults working through depression. Research has shown that just a few minutes spent with pets can boost mood and even decrease blood pressure.


Getting the Support You Need at Inspīr Carnegie Hill

Our Interdisciplinary Care Team is composed of members of our staff (nurses, care partners, social workers, dementia specialists, nutritionists, and lifestyle coaches), as well as hand-selected, highly vetted outside provider partners (physicians, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, therapists, wellness experts, and aging life care professionals), all closely collaborating to achieve optimal health and wellness outcomes for each resident.

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