Depression In The Elderly

Posted by Barbara McVicker on September 25, 2017
Geriatric depression is often viewed by the elderly as a character flaw. However, it is an illness that requires recognition and treatment. A common misconception regards depression as just a part of normal aging, but that is not the case. It is estimated that only 1-5% of the elderly population suffer from depression¹.  
It is certainly understandable for the elderly to have periods of sadness because they have experienced the deaths of friends, decreased health or moved from the family home. They may experience anxiety about the future, evaluate their past and question their legacy. Donald O. Mack, MD CMD, association professor at The Ohio State Medical Center notes that, “Younger people think that retirement will be easy with not having the stress of work and family commitments, but often senior citizens have depression that is caused by losses of independence, health, and relationships.  Additionally, it is magnified by the isolation and loss of social supports.”²
Adult children caregivers often ask the wrong questions about adult depression.  “Are you depressed?” is not helpful because the elderly do not recognize the symptoms of depression. Older loved ones often do not want to admit they have a problem, and may also be very private about expressing their feelings. More direct and specific questions are needed, such as:
● What did you do for fun today?
● What did you eat for lunch?
● How are you sleeping?
● What are your plans for this week?
Depression can affect anyone at any age, including the Adult Child Caregiver.  Some symptoms of depression are:
● Avoiding activities that were once fun and enjoyable
● Isolation - stopping being social
● Avoiding leaving the house
● Losing interest in food – nutrition, hydration
● Difficulty sleeping
● Experiencing a change in mood or personality
● Being anxious, suspicious, irritable, or having unusual behaviors
● Contemplating suicide
There are many safe and effective options available for the treatment of depression in older adults. A healthcare professional who specializes in eldercare can prescribe the correct medication and determine the best dosage.  Because older adults may have many other illnesses and may be on several types of medication, , it is very important to explore the best ways to treat the depression through medicine, change of lifestyle, change in thinking and more.
Caregivers are often so busy getting all the tasks done that are associated with Mom and Dad, that there is little opportunity to assess all the components of their parents’ lives. It’s important to evaluate all of Mom and Dad’s needs so everyone knows what assistance they need. Take time to fill out an objective Needs Assessment Checklist which should include:
● Finances
● Personal Care
● Transportation
● General Health
● Medications
● Doctor Appointments
● Memory
● Emotional Status
● Household Chores³

There are activities that can help alleviate sadness or depression in older adults. Whether you are the caregiver or the next-door neighbor, just say hello. ‘Just Say Hello’ is a project Oprah Winfrey started when she was informed about isolation and its significance to the well being of all people.  Humans are very social beings. We need interaction, hugs, and eye contact.  Anyone can make a difference in an elder’s life by just saying “hello” and encouraging them to participate in activities, whether by themselves or with others. 

● Attend events at local senior center, social club, or church
● Exercise, take a walk, garden
● Reconnect with old friends
● Start a new hobby or revisit old ones
● Volunteer
● Collect coupons to area restaurants
● Eat healthy
● Care for a pet
● Turn on the music
● Watch a funny movie
● Read
Depression and the early signs of dementia may look similar. Jumping to the conclusion that Mom has Alzheimer’s because she seems distracted or depressed is a normal conclusion because of all the attention given to dementia. There are, however, many other illnesses that can look like dementia such as UTI, mourning, vitamin deficiencies, malnutrition, dehydration, drug interactions and other treatable illnesses , including depression. Obtaining a complete and thorough check-up and a diagnosis are essential in determining the undying cause of depression.  Depression can be treated. Your parents can feel better and reclaim their life!
¹ Depression is Not a Normal Part of Growing Older | Alzheimer's Disease and Healthy Aging | CDC
² Donald O. Mack, MD CMD, association professor, The Ohio State Medical Center
³ Before Things Fall Apart: the essential workbook on caring for Mom and Dad at

Barbara McVicker is an author, national speaker, and host of PBS-TV special Stuck in the Middle: caring for Mom and Dad. For more depression in the elderly resources visit