How to Spot Depression in an Elderly Loved One

Depression is a common yet often overlooked mental health condition that can affect people of all ages and backgrounds, including older adults. As individuals get older, they may face various challenges and life transitions that make them more susceptible to depression. To support them through these challenging times, it’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms in order to provide timely intervention and support. In this blog post, we will explore how to spot depression in older adults, drawing insights from trusted sources. 

Whether you are a caregiver or an older adult yourself, understanding the signs of depression can empower you to seek help and improve overall well-being. Let’s take a closer look at the issue.

Understanding depression rates for elderly Americans

Depression is not a normal part of aging. It’s a medical condition that affects an individual’s mood, thoughts and overall quality of life. Unfortunately, depression often goes unrecognized and untreated in older adults. For example, approximately 7 million adults aged 65 and older in the U.S. experience depression annually. Yet, despite this prevalence, it remains underdiagnosed and undertreated. Moreover, only 38 percent of older adults believe that depression is a “health” problem, causing them to hide their symptoms and suffer in silence. 

What causes depression in elderly adults?

A few common causes and contributing factors of depression in older adults include:

  • Biological factors: Changes in brain chemistry and functioning can contribute to depression. Older adults may experience alterations in neurotransmitters, hormones or other biological factors as they age that affect mood regulation and their ability to self-soothe.
  • Health conditions: Chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease or cancer, can increase the risk of depression in older adults. In the same way they would for younger people, the stress, pain and limitations associated with these conditions can impact mental well-being.
  • Medication side effects: Certain medications used to treat physical health conditions can have side effects that affect mood and contribute to depression. It’s important for healthcare professionals to monitor and adjust medications accordingly if they see a sudden onset of depression following a new medication regimen.
  • Loss and grief: Older adults may experience significant losses, such as the death of a spouse, family member or close friend, throughout their lifetime, but especially in their older years. Grief and bereavement can trigger or exacerbate depressive symptoms.
  • Social isolation and loneliness: Feelings of isolation and loneliness are common among older adults, especially if they live alone, have limited social support or have experienced the loss of social connections
  • Life transitions: Major life transitions, such as retirement, relocation or changes in financial status, can be stressful and disruptive. Adjusting to these changes can lead to feelings of sadness, loss of purpose or uncertainty.
  • Family history and genetics: Having a family history of depression or other mental health conditions can increase the risk of developing depression in older adults. 
  • Personal and psychosocial factors: Difficulties coping with stress, low self-esteem, negative thinking patterns, past trauma or a history of mental health issues can contribute to the development of depression in older adults.
  • Substance use disorder: Misuse or abuse of alcohol, prescription medications or other controlled substances can significantly impact mental health and well-being, especially on the aging brain.

It’s important to note that each individual’s experience is unique, and the causes and triggers of depression can vary. Seeking professional help from a healthcare provider experienced in mental health is crucial for accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. To help support older adults in getting the care they need for depression from a licensed healthcare professional, we first recommend familiarizing yourself with the signs and symptoms of this condition.

Signs and symptoms of depression for older adults

In order to help support older adults seek the care they need and deserve, it’s important to recognize the following signs and symptoms:

Persistent sadness or low mood

Older adults experiencing depression may exhibit a persistent feeling of sadness, hopelessness or emptiness that lasts for an extended period of time. They may appear consistently down or disinterested, losing enjoyment in activities they once found pleasurable.

Social withdrawal and isolation

Depressed older adults may withdraw from social activities and isolate themselves from friends, family and community engagement. They may avoid social interactions, stop participating in hobbies or events and exhibit a general disinterest in maintaining relationships they’ve had for a long time.

Changes in appetite and weight

Depression can manifest in older adults through changes in appetite. Some may experience a loss of appetite, resulting in unintended weight loss, while others may overeat, leading to weight gain. These fluctuations in eating patterns can be indicators of undiagnosed depression.

Sleep disturbances

Noticeable changes in sleep patterns can be signs of depression in older adults. They may experience difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or may sleep excessively, impacting their overall quality of rest.

Lack of energy and motivation

If an older adult in your life is feeling fatigued or lacking energy, even after minimal physical or mental exertion, they may be experiencing depressive symptoms. Keep an eye out for if they find it challenging to initiate and complete tasks, leading to a loss of motivation.

Physical complaint

Depression can manifest as physical symptoms in older adults (like unexplained physical discomfort, headaches, digestive issues or chronic pain) without a clear medical cause.

Cognitive changes

Psychologist sitting and touch hand depressed man for encouragement near window with low light environment.

Depressed older adults may experience cognitive changes, such as difficulty concentrating, making decisions or experiencing memory problems. These changes can affect their daily functioning and contribute to feelings of frustration and low self-esteem. If your loved one is experiencing cognitive changes, consider if memory care support for Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia is needed.

Now that we understand the signs and symptoms of depression, we’re going to provide some helpful tips to spot depression in older adults so they can get the support and care they need from those around them.

Six ways to support an older adult experiencing depression

If you’re looking for support on how to best spot and address depression for an older adult loved one, consider the following:

1. Pay attention to mood or behavior changes

Stay observant and be aware of any significant changes in an older adult’s behavior, mood or overall well-being. Recognize that depression can be subtle, so even small shifts may be indicative of an underlying issue.

2. Promote a healthy lifestyle

Encourage regular physical activity, as exercise has been shown to improve mood and alleviate symptoms of depression. Additionally, a balanced diet and sufficient sleep are essential for overall well-being.

3. Seek professional help

If you suspect depression in an older adult, encourage them to consult a healthcare professional experienced in mental health. Physicians, geriatric specialists or mental health professionals can accurately diagnose depression and recommend appropriate treatment options.

4. Build a strong support network around them

Connect older adults with supportive networks, such as support groups, community centers or social activities tailored to their interests. Engaging with others who share similar experiences can provide a sense of belonging and alleviate feelings of isolation. If they live alone, perhaps finding a community they can live in and be part of makes sense as the next step in their life. If you need support in taking this step, get in touch with our team

5. Encourage self-care

Let’s all get more comfortable with always being in our self-care era. Promote self-care activities, such as engaging in a hobby they love or doing something highly relaxing, that focus on the older adult’s emotional and physical well-being. Regularly doing these activities will contribute to them feeling more themselves and reduce signs and symptoms of depression over time.

6. Encourage open communication

Fostering an environment of trust and encouraging open dialogue with the older adult in your life can help them feel more comfortable in coming to you when experiencing a tough time. Create opportunities for them to share their feelings, concerns and experiences without judgment, and when they come to you, contribute to the conversation with them by practicing active listening and providing empathetic responses.

Senior living facilities support older adults and caregivers navigating depression symptoms

At Sonida Senior Living, we understand the importance of addressing depression in older adults. Our communities are dedicated to providing comprehensive support for managing depression and promoting mental well-being by offering community-focused places where older adults can find joy and thrive. From tailored mental health programs to social engagement opportunities, we prioritize the holistic care needed to combat the effects of depression.

If you or your loved one are seeking assistance in managing depression by making a move to a lively, engaging senior living community with ample opportunities for connection, consider meeting with our team to discuss your options. Remember, you are not alone. Support is within reach.

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Shot of a happy senior couple relaxing and using a tablet on the sofa at home
Shot of a happy senior couple relaxing and using a tablet on the sofa at home

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