By Peggy Fossen DNP, RN, CNE
Depression is one of the most prevalent mental health disorders experienced today. Medical News Today reported that in 2020, 27.8% of adults in the United States experienced symptoms of depression. The CDC stated that approximately 7 million American Older Adults suffer from depression. Most of us are familiar with the definition of depression and what the common signs are, but for Older Adults the signs may differ somewhat making the experience of depression an even more challenging and isolating one. So how does depression impact the Older Adult differently than other age groups.
While some of the signs of depression are consistent throughout all ages, Older Adults may experience characteristics unique from others. This also presents unique challenges related to the diagnosis and treatment of depression for Older Adults. Some common signs of depression for all ages include feelings of sadness, sleep problems, changes in appetite, and a loss of interest in hobbies. However, some signs of depression in Older Adults may be more subtle and can be easily missed or misinterpreted. Some of these include irritability, slow movement, aches and pains, trouble concentrating, or focusing on tasks, and confusion.
However, one of the greatest challenges for Older Adults to overcome is the common belief that depression is a normal part of aging. This is not true. While Older Adults are at an increased risk to develop depression, it should never be considered a normal part of aging. To clearly understand that depression is not a normal part of aging it is helpful to understand where this assumption originated from.
It is true that some signs of depression do mimic normal aging events. These indications could be related to a medical illness, medications, or another significant life event. Some signs of depression can be very similar to those seen in dementia. In some cases, Older Adults do not like to discuss or admit these feelings. They may be embarrassed to discuss personal feelings, feel they may be a burden, or that they may be perceived as weak. Some Older Adults may not be aware of or recognize the signs of depression, or they themselves may view these signs as just another part of growing older. In some circumstances, the Older Adult may lack social support having no one to discuss these feelings with, resulting in isolation. As a result, it is estimated that only 10% of Older Adults receive the needed treatments for their depression.
It is easy to see how signs of depression can get muddled with those of aging. Therefore, it is very important to increase understanding and awareness on the unique signs and characteristics of depression in Older Adults. An important part of this is learning about the risk factors related to the development of depression in Older Adults.
Some medical conditions put Older Adults at a higher risk for depression, such as heart disease, having a stroke, or being diagnosed with cancer. Stress can be a risk factor, including caregiver stress. Lack of exercise or activity can put Older Adults at risk. If someone is experiencing functional limitations, making activities of daily living difficult, their risk for depression increases. Alcoholism or addiction can also increase the risk for depression. In addition, social isolation and loneliness greatly increases the risk for depression.
While it is extremely important to seek professional help and treatment for signs of depression. There are some strategies that may help Older Adults struggling with depression find some purpose and decrease feelings of isolation. Feeling connected and having a purpose is very beneficial. Some examples of this could be volunteering, taking a class, joining a local club, or learning a new skill.
If you are struggling with any of these signs of depression, talk to someone, or visit a health providers office. Depression should be viewed as any other illness in the Older Adult and receive the appropriate treatment and interventions. What depression should not be viewed as is a normal part of the aging process!
CDC: Alzheimer’s Disease and Health Aging. Depression is Not a Normal Part of Growing Older | Alzheimer’s Disease and Healthy Aging | CDC
Fulghum, D. (2022). Depression in Older People: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments (webmd.com)
National Institute on Aging. Depression and Older Adults | National Institute on Aging (nih.gov)
Peterson, Tanya.(2023).Why Depression in the Elderly Can Be So Dangerous | HealthyPlace
Rakicevic, M. (2022). 33 Important Depression Statistics to Be Aware of in 2023 (disturbmenot.co)
What is Depression? (NIH). NIMH » Depression (nih.gov)