There’s hope for older adults with depression

October 6-12 is Mental Health Awareness Week and we join the nation in recognizing mental illness and the hope of recovery. Mental health is essential to supporting overall health and well-being. Mental illness complicates the treatment of physical ailments and conditions and threatens a person’s ability to thrive in their environment. It is estimated that 20 percent of people age 55 or older experience some type of mental health concern, according to a 2008 report on the state of mental health and aging by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Depression was found to be one of the most common conditions experienced by older people. Although older people are more likely to experience life changes that can lead to depression such as the loss of loved ones and friends, reductions in socioeconomic status and loss of independence, depression is not a normal part of growing older. It is a treatable condition that is often under-recognized in older adults. 

Older adults with depression may have less obvious symptoms, or they may be less likely to admit to feelings of sadness or grief. They are also more likely to have medical conditions, such as heart disease, which may cause or contribute to depression. Older adults may also experience depression-related functional declines and increased risk of death. However, depression is one of the most successfully treated illnesses, according to the CDC report. Recognizing the signs of depression is the first step in getting treatment for yourself or a loved one, which can make a real difference in quality of life. Symptoms of depression can include:

•        Noticeable changes in mood, energy level or appetite

•        Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies or activities

•        Feelings of guilt, worthlessness or pessimism

•        Having trouble feeling positive emotions

•        Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much

•        Difficulty concentrating

•        Feeling restless or on edge

•        Increased worry or feeling stressed

•        Anger, irritability or aggressiveness

•        Ongoing headaches, digestive issues or pain

•        Sadness or hopelessness

•        Suicidal thoughts

•        Obsessive thinking or compulsive behavior

•        Thoughts or behaviors that interfere with family or social life

•        Unusual thinking or behaviors that concern other people

Treatment options

Studies have shown that depression is best treated using a combination of medication, therapy and lifestyle changes. Antidepressants are medicines that treat depression. There are many different types of antidepressants and they may improve how the brain uses certain chemicals that control mood or stress. Antidepressants take time, usually 2 to 4 weeks, to work. Sometimes, several different medications may be prescribed before a person finds the right one to effectively manage their symptoms.

Talk therapy is one treatment option for depression. This therapy involves talking with a counselor or licensed therapist to help strengthen coping techniques and promote healthy behavior. One type of talk therapy to treat depression is cognitive behavior therapy. It focuses on helping people change negative thinking and any behaviors that may be making depression worse. Also, interpersonal therapy can help an individual understand and work through troubled relationships that may cause the depression or make it worse.

Lifestyle changes can help support mental health and alleviate depression symptoms. Eating a healthy and balanced diet, getting adequate sleep and physical activity are important lifestyle factors that contribute to physical and mental health. People with depression also need to practice self-care and develop tools for recognizing and coping with stress and emotions. Relaxing activities can help calm the mind and reduce stress. Activities can include: walking, listening to music, games, reading, yoga, tai chi, meditation, prayer, inspirational reading, talking to loved ones or friends, playing with pets or sitting outdoors. Relaxing activities can also create pleasurable experiences for older adults, give a sense of fulfilment and happiness as well as improve quality of life.

If you are experiencing signs of depression, consult your healthcare provider or a resource such as the National Institute for Mental Health or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Helping a depressed loved one

If you know someone who has depression, first help him or her see a health care provider or mental health professional. You can also:

  • Offer support, understanding, patience and encouragement
  • Never ignore comments about suicide, and report them to your loved one’s health care provider or therapist
  • Invite him or her to participate in various activities
  • Remind him or her that, with time and treatment, the depression will lift

Adapted from: Depression Basics. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Institutes of Health. NIH Publication No. 19-MH-8079.