Depression in the elderly is very common, and is often overlooked and under diagnosed. According to Dr. Karen Valdez, from the Department of Geriatric Psychiatry at Abington Memorial Hospital, two percent of all Americans age 65 or older have clinically serious depression. That’s 700,000 Americans.
“Depression is more than tearfulness, it’s a disease,” Dr. Valdez said. “It’s alarming because a lot of people do not come forward with depression. Many people feel that depression is a normal part of aging. That could not be further from the truth.”
Causes of late life depression include retirement, loss, loneliness, isolation and health problems. “Having a reduced sense of purpose and transitioning from positions of responsibility to positions of more dependence can cause sadness,” Dr. Valdez said. “No longer being able to take care of our home and losing contact with our adult children can also cause depression.”
Many medical problems can cause depression, because the psychological impacts of living with disease and chronic pain can be significant. Pain medications can also cause depression if taken in large doses. “The burden of living with a medical illness can be very confusing and daunting,” Dr. Valdez said.
Symptoms of depression include:
• Poor appetite and weight loss
• Trouble sleeping
• Low energy and motivation
• Intense guilt
• Slow speech and body movement
• Hopelessness and helplessness
• Self neglect
• Withdraw from socialization or activities
• Preoccupation with death or suicide.
“When you are depressed, you lose interest in the things that you used to enjoy. Nothing brings you joy anymore. You become angry and irritable, you snap and it makes it difficult for friends and family to socialize with you,” says Dr. Valdez.
Fortunately, there are many simple steps that we can take to prevent depression:
• Reach out to your friends and family
• Participate in activities you enjoy
• Care for a pet
• Limit alcohol intake
• Stop smoking
• Eat healthy foods
• Take a multivitamin
“If there are activities that you used to enjoy that you can longer do, that’s not a reason not to try new things,” Dr. Valdez said. “Older age is not a time for tying up the ribbons and closing the door. It is an opportunity for growth.”
“Have a routine schedule in your life. Go to yoga or a discussion group. Being busy during the day helps you to sleep better at night. Exercise. Just 15 minutes three times a week can really help to keep you alert.”
For family members, friends and caregivers, it’s important to be aware of the risk of depression for our loved ones. “Depression happens at any age, to any cultural background, any socio-economic status and any religion. We need to bring this to the attention of our health care providers,” Dr. Valdez said. “I’m talking to you all as mothers brothers, sisters, caregivers, family members and friends. It is really important to speak up.”