Aging and older adulthood is a life phase with unique changes and challenges that can be difficult to manage emotionally and physically. For those supporting seniors, it can be difficult to distinguish between things like normal grief or adjustment and something more serious like clinical depression, which is called Major Depressive Disorder. So how do you know when to take action? What do you do once you have decided to intervene? In this post, we will answer these questions and provide some additional resources to support you and the older adults in your life.
First, here are some statistics and risk factors related directly to older adults. According to a recent CDC article, older adults living in the community with major depressive disorder range anywhere from 1%-5%. However, the numbers increase to 11.5-13.5% for older adults who become hospitalized or receive healthcare in the home. The risk for a depressive episode increases with a new chronic health diagnosis or health crisis. There is also a link between those with dementia and depression. Dementia can sometimes cause depression like symptoms, and depression symptoms can also be a warning sign of dementia. Other risk factors for depression that impact seniors include loneliness, isolation, family history of depression, sleep disturbances, stress, or physical barriers that make it difficult to exercise.
Warning signs may look different for older adults, not always the sadness or tearfulness we often associate with depression. You may notice a loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy. They may just not seem like themselves, or want to engage in the same ways they used to enjoy. You may notice more irritability or what seem like mood swings. Other symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, sleep disruption, sleeping too much, changes in appetite or motivation, anxiety, restlessness, difficulty making decisions, or even unexplained physical problems like aches and pains that don’t seem to have a medical cause. It’s important for you to encourage your loved one to follow up with a healthcare professional if you notice some of these changes or symptoms for two weeks or longer. The healthcare team can rule out any possible medical reasons for changes in their mood like a thyroid imbalance, uncontrolled diabetes or even vascular issues, and help make recommendations for further treatment. If you feel their situation is more emergent, and they are talking about suicide or harm to self or others—it is important that you take action immediately. You can take them to the nearest emergency room or text or call 988 to be connected with the Suicide Crisis Line. Noticing changes in mood and talking to your loved one about their emotional and mental health can save lives and improve quality of life!
So how do you talk to your loved one about depression, and what are some ways to help? Encouraging your loved one to talk to their healthcare team, helping them set up an appointment, and accompanying them to the appointment if they are willing are all helpful. You may also try getting them out to decrease isolation and increase activity. Checking in more frequently to offer emotional support can also be helpful. Common treatments for depression usually include mental health therapy and/or medication. Helping incorporate a healthy diet, sleep habits, and finding time for activity and exercise are also helpful. The most important thing is to check in with your loved one or encourage them to get help if you have concerns about changes in their mood and quality of life. Making it okay to talk about how they are feeling and validating the difficulties that come along with aging can really help open up dialogue to support your loved one.
At AgeWise, we are always on the lookout for changes in our clients and their family members. (Caregivers for someone with chronic illness are also at increased risk of depression.) Our staff have advanced training to help evaluate depression and assist you or your loved one in making a plan to improve their health and sense of general well-being. We are driven by joining you on the journey, no matter what bumps and turns may come along.
For additional information on this topic check out the articles below. Have you seen depression in yourself or a loved one during a change in health status? Let us know in the comments!
About the Author:
Emily Jeffery LSCSW, LMSW is a care manager at AgeWise Advocacy and Consulting. She is a licensed social worker with a background in community mental health and healthcare. She believes compassion, understanding, and holding a judgement-free stance are integral to her approach with clients. She does not shy away from facilitating difficult discussions or therapeutic work about grief, end of life, and mental health challenges.