Detecting depression in older adults can be difficult because symptoms may manifest differently than in younger people. For example, some seniors who are experiencing depression may not display sadness as a major symptom, but rather appear to feel tired more regularly or seem more irritable and grumpier than usual.
What makes diagnosing depression in older adults even more difficult than in younger adults is depression can cause people to get confused more easily or struggle to focus on a specific subject. This confusion may appear to be a brain disorder, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, older adults may have other medical conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, or cancer, that require medication whose side effects contribute to depressive symptoms.
However, identifying depression is crucial to developing an effective treatment plan. Here are some signs to look out for, and methods to prevent and treat depression in older adults.
12 Common Signs of Depression in Senior Citizens
It’s important to note that while depression is common in older adults, it’s not a “normal” part of aging and requires close attention in people of all ages. Here are some signs of depression in senior citizens:
- Loss of interest in favorite activities. A loss of interest in favorite activities can be indicative of a broader decline in mental and physical health. Seniors may begin to withdraw from activities they once enjoyed due to feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or apathy. This withdrawal can further exacerbate their depression, leading to a vicious cycle of isolation and declining mood.
- Persistent sadness or “empty” moods. Persistent feelings of sadness or “empty” moods are common signs of senior depression. These feelings may persist for weeks or months and can impact daily activities such as eating, sleeping, and socializing. Seniors may also experience a lack of energy or motivation and may feel overwhelmed or hopeless.
- Fatigue. Fatigue can manifest as a lack of energy or motivation to perform everyday tasks. Seniors may feel tired or weak and may experience difficulty concentrating or making decisions. This fatigue can be caused by a combination of physical and emotional factors, including sleep disturbances, poor appetite, and heightened negative emotions.
- Trouble sleeping. Trouble sleeping can take many forms, such as difficulty falling asleep, waking up too early, or sleeping too much. Seniors may also experience insomnia or disturbed sleep patterns, which can further exacerbate their depression. These sleep disturbances can be caused by a variety of factors, including changes in brain chemistry, medication side effects, and stress.
- Feelings of guilt, hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness. Seniors may feel as though they are a burden to others, or that they are no longer contributing to society in a meaningful way. These feelings can lead to a sense of despair, and seniors may become increasingly isolated and withdrawn.
- Loss of appetite. Loss of appetite can manifest as a decrease in the desire or motivation to eat. Seniors may experience weight loss, as well as a lack of interest in food or meal preparation. These changes can be caused by a variety of factors, including changes in brain chemistry and a lack of social interaction or stimulation.
- Thoughts of death/suicide. Thoughts of death or suicide are a serious sign of senior depression, and they should be taken seriously. Seniors may express a desire to die or engage in self-harm behaviors, such as taking an excess of medication. These thoughts can be caused by a combination of physical and emotional factors, including feelings of hopelessness, chronic pain, and social isolation.
- Restlessness. Restlessness is a common symptom of senior depression. Older adults experiencing depression may struggle with feelings of agitation, fidgeting, and an inability to sit still. This restlessness can manifest in physical symptoms such as pacing or a constant need to move around. It may also contribute to disrupted sleep patterns, as seniors may have difficulty settling down at night.
- Frequent crying. Older adults experiencing depression may find themselves crying more often without an obvious trigger. Seniors may also cry as a way to release pent-up emotions or to express their feelings of loneliness or isolation.
- Physical symptoms with no clear cause. Physical symptoms such as aches and pains, digestive distress, headaches, and fatigue can be signs of senior depression. Older adults experiencing depression may have physical symptoms with no clear cause, and these symptoms may persist even after treatment for underlying medical conditions. These symptoms can be a result of the stress and inflammation caused by depression or lack of motivation to take care of oneself.
- Irritability. Older adults experiencing depression may struggle with feelings of anger, frustration, and annoyance, even over small things. They may become easily agitated or have a short fuse, lashing out at others or withdrawing from social interactions. Irritability may also be accompanied by feelings of guilt, shame, or worthlessness.
Confusion/attention problems. Some older adults may struggle with memory, focus, and concentration, leading to difficulty completing tasks or making decisions. They may also experience confusion, forgetfulness, and disorientation. These symptoms can be a result of chemical changes in the brain caused by depression, as well as the stress and anxiety that come with the condition.
Some of these symptoms overlap with physical health conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, or could be side effects of certain prescription drugs. Identifying the cause for these signs of depression is important for developing a proper treatment plan.
Prevention Activities and Treatments for Depression in Older Adults
Prevention is the first step to addressing depression in adults. However, the condition is often inevitable and warrants more intensive treatment. Here are some things you can do to try to prevent and treat depression in older adults:
Preventing depression in senior citizens
- Exercise: Encouraging senior citizens to exercise can do wonders for their mental health. Whether it’s moving their body by walking, swimming, or even dancing, help them find what they enjoy to sustain regular activity.
- Healthy diet: If you’ve ever heard of the gut-brain connection, you understand that what you eat can impact how you think/feel. Eating healthy sends positive signals to the brain that encourages better, more stable moods, better focus, and more energy.
- Uplifting activities: Feeding passion in senior citizens is a great way to lift their spirits. Involve them in activities that interest them or help them stay social, from art projects to gardening, and allow them to get creative and child-like in nature.
Time with family: Spending time with loved ones is the ultimate contributor to healing. While it might be difficult to get together during COVID, many can still call, video-chat or visit their elderly loved one from a safe distance.
Treating older patients with depression
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a great form of therapy that helps individuals identify toxic thought patterns and stop over-generalizing and catastrophizing. Many senior citizens struggle with negative thoughts associated with aging, illness, fear of death, isolation and more. CBT is a great way to recognize these unhelpful thoughts and think more clearly/rationally.
- Group therapy: Isolation and loneliness is a common issue for older adults. Through group therapy, seniors tend to feel less alone and more supported, knowing they aren’t the only ones feeling a certain way. Group therapy helps people of all ages grow more empowered while building their social connections.
- Medication: When depression is severe and other treatments aren’t helping, medication is a great option. No one deserves to suffer from depression, and thanks to various medications on the market, depression doesn’t have to be such an issue. While it might take a little experimenting and patience finding a drug that works best for the individual, it’s worth alleviating the mental anguish caused by depression.
Interested in learning more about this topic? Check out our other blogs to learn more about senior health.