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Depression need not be part of aging process

Myth: Depression is an expected part of growing older.

Fact: While older adults are susceptible to depression, it is not a "given" that one should expect to have to deal with depression as one gets older.

As we grow older, all of us will experience some life changes such as retirement, increased medical issues, and the death of friends and loved ones. Most adapt normally and without symptoms of depression. Unfortunately, stressors that come with aging can increase the risk of depression for some older adults.

There any many triggers for depression, specific to older adults, because of unique circumstances that may happen during this stage in life. These might include loneliness caused by the loss of friends and loved ones; a lack of purpose after retirement which can be a difficult transition for some; difficulties with making decisions and memory problems; the loss of driving privileges increasing the potential for isolation and increased dependence upon others; stress over finances, changes in relationships; and/or increased medical issues such as disability or chronic pain. Certain medical conditions and the medication used to treat them may also have depression as a potential side effect.

Some older adults will not express sadness,

but give other clues such as:

  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Increased anxiety and worries
  • Decreased energy level or motivation
  • Increased irritability (especially prominent in men)
  • Neglecting personal cares (e.g. skipping meals, forgetting medications, neglecting personal hygiene)

Older men often experience depression differently than women. While women with depression are more likely to have feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and excessive guilt, men are more likely to be very tired, irritable, lose interest in once pleasurable activities, and have difficulty sleeping. Men may be more likely than women to turn to alcohol or drugs when depressed.

Unfortunately, depression may lead to suicidal thoughts. Although more women attempt suicide, many more men die by suicide in the United States. Older white males age 85 and older actually have the highest suicide rate in the United States.

Within the current generation of elderly, 75 years and older, many were raised in a time when mental illness (including depression) was highly stigmatized and misunderstood. Many thought, and some still do, that if you seek help for mental health problems that they will be placed into institutional care and left there. While this is untrue, unfortunately this leads to some older adults being afraid of seeking help. Others may be too proud or ashamed to ask for assistance.

In fact, depression is so very common, and so very treatable that it's a shame for people to have to suffer needlessly!

Both formal and informal treatment strategies for depression are effective and include:

  • Physical activity and exercise, which has powerful mind-boosting effects.
  • Get out of the house and find a way to connect with others. Limit the time you are alone plays a big role in lifting the fog of depression!
  • The use of anti-depressant medication to help offset the chemical imbalances in the brain that can occur with clinical depression.
  • Get involved with talk therapy, including individual, family and/or group experiences.
  • Maintain a healthy diet.
  • Resume or take up a new hobby or interest which can help one to have something to look forward to, share with others, and enjoy.
  • Volunteer your time -- you can help others and expand your social network at the same time.
  • Find humor in your life -- watch comedies, tell jokes, read funny stories.
  • Pet therapy. Take care of a pet which provides company, an opportunity for exercise, and a chance to meet others.

If your friend or loved one appears depressed, there are things you can do to help them feel better. You can offer emotional support, listen with patience and compassion. Look for ways to offer the person hope - things will get better. Invite your loved one out. Prepare and deliver some healthy meals for the person. Buy them a gift certificate for having meals at their local Senior Citizen's Center.

Most importantly, help your loved one get professional help that can offer an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Help the person find a good doctor/therapist, and take them to the appointments. Encourage the person to keep his/her appointments and remind him/her to take any prescribed medications faithfully. Watch for any loss of hope, increased thoughts of death or self-harm. If you see this happening, seek help immediately from their prescribing physician and/or therapist.

Getting older doesn't mean you or your loved one need to put up with depression. If you or someone you know are experiencing the symptoms of depression, call a local behavioral health facility for help.