Depression affects people of all ages; it really doesn’t care if you’re a 17-year-old high school student or a 50-something CEO. Depression is non-discriminating and will take you down like a starving grizzly bear, given half a chance.
There is one age group that often gets overlooked when it comes to depression and that’s the elderly.
In seniors especially, symptoms of depression are sometimes missed or confused with the effects of other illnesses or medication they may be using. Also, the typical symptoms of depression — such as fatigue, lack of appetite and loss of interest in previously loved activities — are often put down to the aging process and not depression. Studies on the number of elderly people experiencing depression varies, but it’s estimated 6.5 million of Americans over 65 are depressed.
Sadly, only about 10 percent of those people actually receive any help.
Seniors are especially vulnerable to other complications from depression. They are at higher risk of physical illnesses such as cardiac disease, which can lead to death from heart attack. It also makes it harder for them to recover from illness, which again puts an elderly person more at risk.
Suicide in the elderly also is a huge problem, especially for white men over 80; they are twice more likely to kill themselves than anyone else from a general population.
One of the main reasons depression isn’t always recognized in older people is because they tend to brush off, minimize, or deflect how they are feeling with comments such as “I’m OK, I’m just not sleeping too well. I’ll be fine after a good night’s sleep;” or “I’m not lonely, my dear. Don’t worry about me. How are the children?;” or “I’m fine, really. I’m just not very hungry at the moment. I think I’ve had a bug, but I’m OK now.”
These comments make it easy for friends, family, or doctors to miss what is really going on. I know this from personal experience, as my mother was a pro at this deception. She would have an appointment with her doctor, go in, put on her best face and leave as if nothing was wrong. When I’d ask her if she told her doctor about this issue or that symptom, she’d say, “Oh, no, I didn’t want to make a fuss.” Her thinking was that she had to look well for the doctor, and that was her learned behavior – never let anyone know you’re not doing well.
It’s hard to understand why somebody wouldn’t want to tell a doctor they’re suffering, but I remind myself that people in their 70s and 80s were born in the 1930s and 1940s — a time when people didn’t really talk about feelings. I think this is due to the devastation caused to families by the Great Depression and two world wars. It was easier to “just get on with it” than dwell on the emotional trauma of that time.
5 Ways You Can Help a Senior with Depression
From my experience, I know getting help for an elderly relative is difficult, but if you are concerned about someone and think their current behavior and mood is compromising their life, here are 5 things that might help.
- Even though you’re concerned for them, it’s best not to let your anxiety manifest by getting angry at them or demanding that they seek help. Trying to force a person into seeing a doctor or therapist can have the opposite effect. You’re better off taking things slowly. Try engaging in calm conversation. Find out what they might be worried about or what might have changed in their life recently. Gather information which you can then use to highlight and clarify why it might be a good idea for them to get help.
- When trying to talk to them about how they are feeling, try to avoid using words that might make them defensive. Words such as ‘depression,’ ‘struggling’ or ‘can’t cope’ can strike fear into their hearts. Barriers will most likely be raised and they’ll refuse to talk about it. You’re better off using words such as ‘sad,’ ‘blue,’ and ‘rough time.’ These words take the edge off what might be a scary subject.
- Elderly people often will not want to make a fuss, so feelings of guilt and shame can be prevalent. Try to reassure them that you are not judging them for how they feel, and that you care about them. Help them understand that it’s their choice to get help and that you will do what you can to support them.
- Supporting a depressed relative doesn’t mean that you take over and do everything for them. As much as you might want to help, doing too much can reinforce their thinking that they are now ‘useless and a burden.’ It is important to try to find a balance between helping them and having them help themselves. Together it can be useful to break down tasks into smaller activities. By doing smaller tasks, they are less likely to get tired and avoid doing what they need to. Doing less each day can mean doing more over the week.
- Seeing a psychiatrist can be scary for anyone, let alone an elderly person who tries to avoid doctors. See if you can get their permission to be a part of the appointment process. This can be useful because often the scariness of the situation, and their limited cognitive functioning due to depression, can mean an elderly relative doesn’t say what has been going on for them. They could lack the ability to retain the information the psychiatrist is telling them.
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 6 Jun 2013
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
Coster, D. (2013). Depression & Seniors: 5 Ways You Can Help. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 3, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/06/06/depression-seniors-5-ways-you-can-help/