Depression in Older People

What is depression?

Everyone of us knows what it feels like to be 'down in the dumps' or sad. We may even refer to ourselves as 'feeling depressed'.

However depression is a very serious condition which can affect a person both mentally and physically.

When a person feels down or sad, these feelings usually pass relatively quickly. However depression is when these feelings go on for at least a few weeks, affecting all parts of the person's life.

Depression can affect every part of your life, from the way you sleep to the way you act around your friends.

Depressed people cannot 'snap out of this condition' or 'pull themselves together'. They need professional help. Therefore if you or somebody you know is showing signs of depression, consult your doctor immediately. Do not suffer depression in silence hoping it will just go away on its own.

Depression is a treatable condition.

How can I tell the difference between just being down and being depressed?

Everybody feels down at some stage, however low moods are thought of as depression if they persist and affect all parts of your life.

If you have symptoms of depression, which last for most of the day for at least two weeks, you should consult your doctor immediately.

What are some of the psychological symptoms of depression?

  • Low mood.
  • Depressive thinking.
  • Anxiety.
  • Emotional numbness.
  • Lack or loss of interest in things you used to enjoy.
  • Concentration and memory problems.
  • Delusions or hallucinations.
  • Feelings of guilt or shame.
  • Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness.
  • Lack of motivation.
  • Suicidal or self-harming thoughts.
  • Thoughts of death.

What are some of the physical symptoms of depression?

  • Increase or decrease in appetite.
  • Increase or decrease in weight.
  • Loss of interest in sex.
  • Tiredness.
  • Sleeping problems (this can include too much sleep or having trouble getting to sleep or early morning waking).
  • Constipation.
  • Recurrent headaches that don't go away with treatment.

What causes depression?

In some cases, there is an obvious reason for a person to become depressed. They may have experienced some sort of traumatic event, such as the death of a spouse.

However sometimes there is no obvious reason. In such cases, depression may be caused by a combination of psychological, environmental and genetic factors.

There are a number of factors which may make a person prone to depression:

  • Gender: Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed as depressed than men.
  • Genes: Depression can run in families. This does not mean if a close family member has depression, you will definitely get it too. However if depression runs in your family, you should be aware of the symptoms. If you recognise any of these symptoms in yourself or another member of the family, medical help should be sought immediately.
  • Personality: There is no one type of personality that makes a person more prone to depression than others.
  • Family environment: There are a number of factors which may lead to depression within the family environment, for example, the death of a parent or sibling or if there is/was sexual abuse in the family.
  • Long-term illness: A person with a long-term illness may experience depression if, for example, the illness means they have lost their independence and are dependent on others for their well-being.

While all of these factors may play a role in depression, it is important to note that none of them actually cause depression. These factors simply mean certain people may be more at risk than others.

What are the risk factors when it comes to older people and depression?

While no one thing can definitely cause depression, with older people, there are a number of risk factors associated with depression:

  • Menopause: Many women seek help for depression when they become middle-aged. Some doctors believe this is because of the menopause, believing that hormone changes during the menopause can trigger depression. However there is no reliable evidence which proves that depression is more common as a result of the menopause. While it can play a role, it is more likely that it is just one of a number of factors which triggers depression at this time of life, for example their children may leave home or there may be a change in the relationship with their partner.
  • Change in roles and lifestyle: As mentioned above, when people get older, they may experience many life changes, for example, their children may leave home. This can be very unsettling for some, especially if their life has revolved around raising their children. They may now experience feelings of emptiness and worthlessness. Similarly a person who has worked all their life may find retirement difficult to come to terms with.
  • Illness: Some older people may experience various types of illness which may indirectly lead to depression. For example if an older person fractures their hip as a result of osteoporosis, they may lose a lot of their independence. There may even be a role reversal where their child has to look after them. This can be very difficult for some people to come to terms with. In some cases, the older person may have to watch their spouse or partner going through an illness or they may have to be the carer. This can put them under a lot of pressure and may be a risk factor when it comes to depression in older people.

How is depression treated?

It is absolutely essential that you consult your doctor if you suspect depression or are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned for prolonged periods of time.

There are a number of options open to you:

  • Antidepressant drugs.
  • Psychological therapy, such as cognitive therapy or behaviour therapy.
  • Support groups: Meeting people who have gone through some of the same things as you can sometimes help.
  • Stress management: If your depression is being triggered by stress or pressure, for example, looking after a parent with a long-term illness, stress management may help. This can include relaxation exercises, massage and aromatherapy.
  • Complementary medicine: This has become increasingly popular in recent years. It is essential that you inform your doctor of any complementary treatment you are receiving. Examples include acupuncture and homeopathy.

Remember that depression is a treatable condition.

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