Depression in older adults is a very real phenomenon, but it is also a highly treatable one. The important thing to understand is that depression should never be disregarded or ignored, no matter the age of the individual who is suffering. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) urges us to realize that “depression and aging do not go hand in hand,” and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) echoes this sentiment when they stress, “depression is not a normal part of aging.”
One of the challenges for diagnosing depression in seniors is that the symptoms often comingle and overlap with those of aging. The key lies in recognizing there is a very real difference between the two. While aging brings change to everyone’s body, distinguishing between ordinary, physical, age-induced change, and change that is amplified by mental illness is critical. Ailments, injuries, and health problems may occur with anyone, naturally, but feelings of hopelessness, purposelessness, and despair represent an unrelated and distinctly dangerous area of concern. Such feelings should be heard and addressed, not belittled or ignored.
In addition to physical pain and suffering, other factors that can contribute to depression in the aging population include genetics, activity level, diet, attitudes, and one’s overall environment. However, NAMI maintains that the most significant factor of all is one’s social life. In short, the importance of relationships cannot be overstated. High levels of social interaction tend to boost moods and diminish feelings of isolation and depression, whereas low levels of social interaction—whatever the cause or reason—tend to increase (and invite) feelings of isolation and depression.
Ailments, injuries, and health problems cannot be avoided, but feelings of hopelessness, purposelessness, and despair represent an unrelated and distinctly dangerous area of concern. Such feelings should be heard and addressed, not belittled or ignored.
The good news is, regardless of what brought on a particular or chronic depressive state, there are numerous ways one can reduce the intensity of symptoms, or eliminate them altogether. Further, one does not need to be an expert to help guide others (or oneself) to treatment that can reduce or alleviate the anguish of depression.
With this in mind, it is helpful to recognize and understand the potential symptoms and/or warning signs for depression.
These include, but are not limited to:
- A persistent sadness or a feeling of “emptiness”
- A sense of hopelessness or a profound pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or shame
- A sense of drained energy or the feeling of being “slowed down”
- Trouble remembering, concentrating, or making decisions
- Erratic sleep, insomnia and/or regularly oversleeping
- Unusual restlessness or an increased irritability
- Dramatic changes in appetite or unintended weight gain/loss
- A fearfulness about sharing depressive feelings
- Momentary delusions or hallucinations
- Persistent thoughts of suicide
Depending on the frequency, duration, and severity of these symptoms, treatment options will vary. Exercise, dietary changes, meditation, mindfulness, prayer, psychiatric counseling, group therapy, or medication can all play a role in fighting mental illness. Also, as previously noted, one of the most important remedies for improving the prognosis for older adults is to increase their overall level of social interaction. AgeWell Cincinnati is an excellent gateway to a wide variety of resources that can help older adults in the local Jewish community increase connections by making social integration a major health priority.
Counseling is a proven and powerful method for creating new thinking patterns and coping skills. Talk therapy is known to significantly increase problem-solving capabilities, which can help resolve any change-of-life issues that may be driving the depression (from the death of spouse to losing the ability to drive). Here again, AgeWell Cincinnati can be a wise ‘first call’ for those unfamiliar with the array of therapy options available in the region. For example, Jewish Family Service of Cincinnati has a high-quality, in-home counseling program specifically designed to help seniors with depression.
While many older adults do not feel comfortable seeking treatment to address their mental health issues, whether due to misplaced shame or a fear of being stigmatized, those who do find help often experience high levels of success—especially when they align with treatment appropriate to their age or life-stage. Further, when it comes to assisted-living residences or nursing homes, having a staff that is knowledgeable about aging and depression, and eagerly engaged with those topics, can be a uniquely valuable asset for the older, at-risk residents.
If counseling alone does not resolve or alleviate symptoms, some older adults may require further treatment, such as a carefully-guided course of medication. In these cases, a primary care physician, psychiatrist, therapist, or care manager can help the patient or their family access the services needed to recover and continually improve.
Finally, regardless of one’s specific relationship to this challenging struggle, it is important to know that avoidance will inevitably worsen each and every situation. Frank openness about one’s feelings or concerns is the only sure path to resolution. Indeed, silence around this issue is far more dangerous than any embarrassment or awkwardness a difficult conversation might engender. Worrying about a loved-one’s condition will likely accomplish little. Spending time with a loved-one—and truly listening in a supportive and caring way—can help older adults seek and receive help as they start on the road to recovery. Whereas loss, grief, chronic pain, family history, and, above all, social isolation can all combine to increase the likelihood for depression, socialization, exercise, family support, counseling, self-care, and medication can collectively lessen the load of depression, reduce the frequency of depressive episodes, and even keep depression away, entirely.
If you are interested in learning more about ways to identify and push back against depression, please reach out to AgeWell Cincinnati. The experts at AgeWell Cincinnati can connect you to 62 services and 7 categories—through 1 number: 513-766-3333