Growing old. If we are lucky we will all do it. But, no, it is not for the faint of heart.
There are profound challenges confronting the older adult— loss; illness and increasing vulnerability; isolation; dependence; fear of mortality. Depression is not an uncommon problem for seniors confronting these challenges, but it should be recognized that clinical depression is a medical condition that , when properly diagnosed , can be effectively treated.
Depression effects 6.5% of the 35 million individuals over the age of 65, but only a fraction of these individuals actually receive help. The reasons for this are varied, and speak to the stigma, misunderstanding, and confusion that this mental health condition confers, not only on the older person, but also on the health care providers whose job it is to relieve suffering.
The older person themselves may not recognize their symptoms as something requiring medical attention, or even as something that could get better. They may assume that depression is to be expected at this stage of life. They may think it is a normal response to grief for example, or to the sorrow they feel for what has been lost.
Feelings of shame or embarrassment may also prevent an older person from sharing their distress with family or doctors. And if an older person is isolated, without social or family supports, there is no one around to observe and point out that something is wrong.
Depression in the older adult also looks different than it does in a younger person. Research published in the Applied Journal of Gerontology shows that instead of feelings sad and blue, the older person is apt to feel irritable or tired, have trouble sleeping, lose their appetite or be unable to concentrate.
Depression has, not only psychological symptoms, but also physical ones, and for individuals suffering exclusively physical symptoms, such as poor appetite and fatigue, depression can be even more complicated to treat.
What’s more symptoms of depression can be mistaken for signs of other diseases that are not uncommon in older people, particularly dementia because they can look quite similar. Others include cancer, stroke, Parkinson’s and heart disease.
While depression is not easy to treat, there are therapies and lifestyle behaviors that can dramatically improve the quality of life for the older adult. So, be proactive and have your loved one screened for depression