depressed senior man

As people age and enter their senior years, they may appear to have less energy--staying home more often, eating lighter meals, and spending less time with friends. But while slowing down can be a natural part of growing older, it can also signal depression.

It's common for depression in elderly people to be ignored or treated as a standard sign of aging. But the fact is, depression is no more normal for seniors than it is for other age groups. Take the time to recognize the symptoms of depression in older people. If you think an older loved one may be suffering, there are steps you can take to help ensure they get the help and support they need.

Causes and Symptoms of Depression in Seniors
Certain life changes that may occur as we age can put the elderly at increased risk for depression. These include:

  • Health problems due to chronic pain, cognitive decline, or disease
  • Loss of purpose due to retirement or physical limitations on activities
  • Loneliness and isolation due to living alone or decreased mobility

Because of these changes, a certain amount of grief is natural and inevitable. However, a pervasive and lasting sense of hopelessness is not normal and should be treated. Additional symptoms to suggest that you may be dealing with depression in a senior include:

  • Intense feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Slower speech or movements
  • Decreased ability to carry out daily activities
  • Thoughts of suicide or dying

Treatments for Older Patients
There are a number of lifestyle changes that seniors can try at home to help decrease depression:

Stay active. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says that physical activity has been proven to boost mood. In fact, research suggests that exercise may be an effective addition to antidepressant medication in treating depression. Encourage your elderly loved ones to incorporate more physical activity into their day. Even small actions can make a difference, such as climbing the stairs or doing housework.

Don't isolate. Some older people may start to withdraw from social activities. But staying involved with others can help to keep depression at bay. Friends and family can help older loved ones stay positive and motivated to overcome depression. Help elderly relatives think of ways to reach out and connect with others, even if it's just through phone or email.

Sleep and eat right. NAMI reports that lack of sleep can worsen depression symptoms--as can eating too much junk food or sugary snacks. Encourage seniors to sleep between seven and nine hours per night and eat balanced meals with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

If lifestyle changes don't help ease their depression, make sure that your elderly loved ones seek medical treatment. A doctor will be able to advise on whether an antidepressant medication, or treatment with counseling and therapy, might be helpful.

HealthAhead Hint: Common Doesn't Mean Normal
According to NAMI, over 6.5 million Americans over 65 suffer from depression. Though some of these seniors have experienced depression at earlier ages as well, many others develop symptoms for the first time late in life--even as late as their 80s and 90s. But although depression in the elderly is common, it's not a natural part of the aging process. When you can recognize the symptoms of depression in seniors, then you can help them take the necessary steps to ensure they get support and treatment to improve their quality of life.