Depression and Aging: Mental Health Concerns and Warning Signs

By Marcy Shoemaker, Psy.D., Abramson Center psychologist

Unfortunately, for seniors who suffer from depression, the golden years are not always bright and glowing.  Depression often occurs as one ages for a variety of reasons including new health problems and changes in lifestyle. The good news is that depression can be diagnosed, treated and managed so that seniors can experience a quality life.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, depression occurs among 1-5% of seniors who are living independently, with a greater occurrence among seniors receiving home care (13.5%) and among older adults in hospitals (11.5%). Misdiagnosis of depression in the elderly is a concern. Physicians, family and friends may confuse the symptoms as a medical issue.  An elderly patient who often visits their doctor with multiple issues may be labelled as “a complainer” when the core problem may be caused by depression. The good news is that there are practical solutions to address mental health issues and aging. Better knowledge about depression and coping techniques can be used by family, friends, seniors and physicians for early detection and treatment. The first step is identification of the problem.

Here are some possible warning signs that a senior may be at risk for depression:

  • Diagnosis of a chronic illness which reduces independence.
  • Those suffering from chronic illness often experience other medical conditions which often affect one’s mental health.
  • A decrease in mobility and overall functioning.
  • Unemployment and difficulty defining a purpose in life (feeling as if there is no reason to get up in the morning).
  • Disappointment associated with retirement.
  • A preoccupation with doctors’ appointments, tests and taking prescribed medicines.
  • Financial restrictions.
  • Loss of friends in one’s age group. 
  • Change in familial roles (adult child now makes decisions about senior’s health and finances).

How to help your elderly loved one manage depression:

  • Recommend planning for retirement years and developing new interests possibly with the help of a trained professional.
  • Suggest new activities and hobbies as a way to increase enjoyment and socialization.
  • Family and friends should ask questions about changes in their loved ones mood. Be objective about treatment options.
  • Find ways to mitigate any loss of independence (recommend asking for help, using services like home care and aides).
  • Help your loved one challenge their belief that mental health issues are “only in their  head or are a sign of weakness.”
  • Recommend joining a support group.
  • Discuss the positive aspects of volunteering
  • Discuss receiving guidance from a trained professional (psychologist, psychiatrist or counselor).

Depression is a problem that occurs among many seniors. But with treatment and management, symptoms can be alleviated and the senior years can be lived with a rich quality of life. It is important for all seniors and their family and friends to recognize that depression does not need to impair one’s life. Be positive, get help and ask questions. There is light at the end of the tunnel

For more information, fill out the form on our Abramson Care Advisors, or call us for free, 24/7 at 215-371-3400.