Senior Health Review: An Examination of Depression in Seniors

Depression rates in seniors are a serious problem that often goes undiagnosed due to lack of public awareness or social stigma, among other factors. Diagnosing depression in seniors may be difficult for several reasons, and many seniors also have medical conditions that may complicate a diagnosis. Read our guide below to learn how to recognize the signs of depression in senior citizens.

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Natasha McLachlan is a writer who currently lives in Southern California. She is an alumna of California College of the Arts, where she obtained her B.A. in Writing and Literature. Her current work revolves around insurance guides and informational articles. She truly enjoys helping others learn more about everyday, practical matters through her work.

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Laura Walker graduated college with a BS in Criminal Justice with a minor in Political Science. She married her husband and began working in the family insurance business in 2005. She became a licensed agent and wrote P&C business focusing on personal lines insurance for 10 years. Laura serviced existing business and wrote new business. She now uses her insurance background to help educate...

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Reviewed by Laura Walker
Former Licensed Agent

UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Senior citizens are one of the most populous groups in the United States right now. Seniors are living longer and staying more active and they are healthier than many generations before them. However, depression is a serious problem among seniors and it often goes undiagnosed because of a lack of public awareness or due to social stigma and other factors. Older people can experience depression just like the rest of the population and it can lead to a decrease in quality of life, something that seniors should absolutely avoid in their older years. Depression is a real illness, but luckily it can be both diagnosed and treated.

What is Depression?

Everyone feels sad occasionally, and many have life events that cause them emotional pain. Depression, however, is more than just feeling sad or having bad things happen. Depression is generally longer term than most bouts of sadness and may come with the feeling of being both sad and dejected. Often, people with depression have trouble completing daily tasks, have little to no interest in things they once enjoyed, and may either experience trouble sleeping or may sleep too much. Depression is not just sadness, but a mental illness that can impact anyone.

The condition may lead to feelings of worthlessness or a lack of desire to see friends or go out of the house. It can even lead to thoughts of suicide or death. Many people have depression, but many have not been taught about its symptoms, and the social stigma attached to depression is still great, especially for older generations. Depression has only began to be a recognized illness in the last few decades, so convincing an elderly person to seek treatment may require additional understanding and effort.


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Diagnosing Elderly Depression

Diagnosing depression in seniors may be difficult for several reasons. Shame or humiliation can play a huge role, as can the idea that feeling depressed is normal. In addition, many seniors also have medical conditions that may complicate a diagnosis. Conditions such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, thyroid problems, and many others can mimic depression symptoms or mask the signs of depression thus making it much harder to diagnose.

Seniors may also ignore symptoms of depression since it isn’t always just feeling sad. Depression can also include a feeling of low energy, of being tired, headaches, or joint and muscle pains. These all things that many older adults experience even without depression. A doctor should be able to eliminate other symptoms, including physical symptoms, although the process can be time-consuming.

Another reason seniors may have problems getting diagnosed with depression is social stigma. Many seniors grew up in a time when depression was not a recognized illness, and instead was just “feeling sad,” an emotion many were taught to get over. Many seniors may also think that their depression is just a normal sign of slowing down and aging. Education about mental health is a key to ending the social stigma surrounding depression.


Getting Help with Depression

The most crucial step for seniors with depression is seeking help. Many seniors, especially those who are widowed, can live very solitary lives. It is important for seniors to have someone to talk to, whether it is a friend, doctor, child, neighbor, or someone else. Others may recognize the signs of depression and can gently urge the individual to get help or can assist by helping them to locate and gain access to mental health services.

Getting help can be difficult in some cases, especially for seniors. Other tests may be needed to eliminate physical ailments, and these tests can be costly and take up a significant amount of time. Luckily, many senior centers, churches, and clinics have trained doctors, psychologists, and counselors who may be able to help seniors struggling with depression. These resources can vary in price, availability, and reach, but they are available in many locations.

Once diagnosed, it is very important to take medication as prescribed and to stay in contact with your doctor. Suicidal thoughts can be a side effect of medication, and medication for depression may need to be adjusted frequently, especially immediately after diagnosis. Seniors should make sure they have someone to talk to and that they are able to reach their doctor should they need help. Anyone who says that they have thoughts of suicide or self-harm, no matter their age, should be encouraged to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and should be taken seriously by their loved ones, who can help get them the assistance they need.


Additional Resources

No matter whether it is you, a loved one, a friend, or an acquaintance, depression is a serious illness that should be treated accordingly. Although people with depression may put on a good face; listening, evaluating, and talking to someone with depression can help save a life, and seniors should never feel like depression is a thing they just have to live with or that it is a part of the aging process.

Depression can be treated at any age, and seniors should have just as much access to and ability to receive mental health care as the rest of the population. Through education and ending stigma surrounding depression, seniors suffering from depression can get the help they need to get treatment. Here are some additional resources for understanding depression in seniors.

Mental Health America helps to clear up some misconceptions about depression in senior citizens: Depression in older adults: More facts.

The University of Michigan Depression Center is also a good place for general information on depression in later life: Depression after 60: Your questions answered.

The Geriatric Mental Health Foundation focused on anxiety in the elderly: Anxiety and older adults: Overcoming worry and fear.

The University of Maryland Medical Center is another good resource for information about depression: Depression.

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