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Depression in Older Adults

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 21 Oct 2010 | comments*Discuss
Depression Mature Adults Older Adults

Considering the many challenges that one has to face as one gets older – such as medical problems, loss of loved ones and loneliness – it is surprising that depression is not more common in older adults. However, this does not mean that depression must be accepted as a normal part of ageing. If the signs are recognised early and effective help is found, then there is no reason for you to enjoy a cheerful, upbeat state of mind well into your golden years.

What causes depression in older adults?

In a way, the causes of depression are similar to those in young people – such as loss of health, independence, mobility, your long-time career or beloved friends and family members. However, for older adults – especially those without a good support network – the occurrence of many significant life changes, often at the same time, puts them at higher risk for depression. For example, many older adults suffer from:

  • Health problems – illness, disease, chronic pain, disability or cognitive decline
  • Deterioration in body image – loss of youthful looks, figure or physical abilities; damage due to surgery or disease
  • Loss of identity or sense of purpose – retirement from career or limitations on activities due to health
  • Bereavement – grief from death of spouse or partner, other family members, friends and pets
  • Fear – fear and anxiety about thought of dying or helplessness, loss of control, health problems or financial problems.
  • Isolation and loneliness – dwindling social circle due to relocation or death; children leaving home; break-up of marriage; living alone and decreased mobility due to health problems

Can anything else trigger depression?

In addition, the medication that many people are required to take as they enter middle age can trigger or exacerbate depression. Furthermore, certain chronic medical conditions and illnesses, especially those which are disabling or painful, can lead to depression. These include Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, stroke and heart attack or heart disease and cancer. Some other health issues which can also affect mood and contribute to depression include hormonal imbalances, nutritional deficiencies, electrolyte imbalances and thyroid problems.

You are also more at risk if you have a family history of depression or a personal history of substance abuse problems, as well as insufficient social support.

How do you recognise depression?

Most people associate depression with being sad and this, together with an attitude of pessimism, is certainly the most common sign. Lethargy and social withdrawal as well as loss of interest hobbies and leisure pursuits is another common symptom of depression. In addition, people that suffer from depression often have problems sleeping and may also experience loss of appetite and even weight loss. In extreme cases, there may even be dependency on alcohol, drugs or suicidal attempts.

However, in many older adults depression doesn’t actually manifest in the ways that people expect and so is often mistaken. For example, many insist that they don’t feel sad at all but instead, they may increased signs of irritability or anxiety, even to the point of fretting or fidgeting constantly. Many will also complain constantly about physical problems or a lack of energy – and some show loss of memory.

Is there self-help for depression?

Although it may be the last thing you feel like doing, it is really important to get help for depression – otherwise it will only get worse.

Aside from seeking professional help and treatment through anti-depressants and counselling, there are also some things you can do in your every day life to help your mental state. These include things like making the effort to get out and about, instead of staying cooped up all day at home. Even if you don’t feel like it, get dressed, go out and meet friends, go for a walk in the park, get some fresh air. Try to limit the time you have to spend alone. If it is hard for you to get out to socialise, invite friends and family over – or maintain contact by phone, email or over the internet. With the power of online social media these days, it is easy to find like-minded people to socialise with, even if you never leave your living room.

Keep up your hobbies – keep doing things that give you pleasure. Think about learning a new skill – maybe something that you have always wanted to learn, especially something creative. Keep up an exercise regime – even if you are disabled, frail or ill, you can still find some safe exercises you can do. Finally, if you haven’t already got a pet, consider getting one – they can be amazing for lifting one’s spirits, providing you with unconditional love and company and giving you a sense of purpose in something to care for.

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