Clinical depression among the elderly is very different from depression in young adults. This is because the elderly are dealing with many things that young adults may never have faced, such as retirement, isolation, health problems, the loss of friends and relatives their age, a lack of a support system, and body changes. All these can make the impact of depression among the elderly more keenly felt, and the depression lasts longer.
Perhaps you have a mother who, all her life was very strong and domineering. Suddenly, you see behavior changes, and you tell yourself that she is merely experiencing senility. A part of you is in denial, just as much as your mother may be. You may be in denial that your powerful mother is growing older and weaker. Your mother may not want to face the stigma of depression that is more strongly felt in her generation.
And yet, if you fail to spot the possibility of clinical depression in your beloved elderly parent, that is most unfortunate, because it is treatable and it can give your loved one a better quality of life in his or her old age.
About six million elderly Americans (65 and older) experience elderly clinical depression, but only 10 percent of cases are treated. When your elderly parent has a number of illnesses, perhaps a disability and uses different medications for other illnesses, you may not spot clinical depression as an added illness.
Added risks of elderly depression
Elderly clinical depression carries added risks. It can lead to risk of other illnesses such as cardiac disease and heart attack. If your beloved elderly parent has other illnesses, elderly depression can bring down the immune system and exacerbate these other illnesses and slow down rehabilitation. Because of this, the risk of death is increased, including death by suicide.
The elderly are particularly susceptible to clinical depression. This is the stage where you see your friends and relatives your age die. The reality of death cannot be ignored, unlike when you are young and death is rare among your friends and your support system.
The elderly tend to lack a support system because at this stage they are retired, may have changed residence, and lost a number of their community of friends through death, health changes, or change of location.
Elderly women are more prone to depression, especially if the woman is widowed, divorced, or single. If she is experiencing a stressful life event, for example, the death of a spouse or a sudden disability or physical illness, she is very much at risk of elderly depression, more so if she does not have a supportive community to rely on.
Possible signs of elderly depression
If you suspect that your much-loved elderly parent, friend or relative may be experiencing depression, here are some signs that you can look for.
1. Insomnia. This usually is a sign of elderly depression.
2. Medicines. If your elderly parent is taking several different medications, depression may be a side effect.
3. Bodily change. If your elderly parent has had a bodily change such as an amputation, a heart attack or cancer surgery, she or he will be at risk of depression in dealing with this change and feeling a sense of loss and possible mortality.
4. Family history. People with a family history of major depression have a predisposition to attaining the same illness themselves.
5. Isolation. Living alone, with no friends to talk to regularly, or even living among people who don’t care or love you can make you feel very lonely. In the case of the elderly this is more keenly felt because their bodies are weaker, and they may be less independent to do things that normal people can do. If the elderly person lacks love and care, he or she may feel like a burden to those around him or her. Isolation, whether it is physical or keenly felt in a house of people, can be a cause for clinical depression. If you care for your elderly parent but do not live with them, make sure that they are in a caring environment.
6. Past suicide attempts. This is a red flag. Just one attempt should already signal that you should have your elderly parent consult a doctor for possible clinical depression.
7. Fear of death. Conversely, it is possible that your elderly parent is always thinking about death and is fearful of it. Such toxic thinking can be indicative of depression.
8. Chronic or severe pain. Physical pain is depressing and when it is uncontrollable, it can signal depression. The feeling of loss of control of one’s body and one’s pain can be both physically painful and mentally and emotionally demoralizing. This combination can lead to depression.
9. Substance abuse. If your elderly parent has been taking too much alcohol, or chain smokes, or takes drugs like marijuana (more than what is clinically prescribed), or non-prescribed pain medication (or more than what is described), these are all signs of self-medicating and can perhaps be blamed on depression.
If you suspect that your elderly parent may be depressed, bring him or her to the doctor immediately. The doctor may possibly do a brain scan to see if the brain is receiving enough blood flow. Chemical changes in the brain can also cause depression.
Otherwise, the doctor can prescribe medications to alleviate depression. Either way, it will be an empowering experience for your elderly parent to know that depression is something that they don’t have to live with. Once they feel better about themselves and their lives, they can pursue rehabilitation, and even better, have the quality of life that they deserve.