Depression is a common problem amongst older adults and the elderly, but it is not a normal part of ageing. The physical health problems that many elderly patients experience can be correlated with onset of clinical depression. Along with other issues such as mental and physical decline, loss of work, and grief, the elderly can be especially prone to depression. Unfortunately, depression can look different in older adults than in other populations, as sadness is often not reported as a symptom. Other symptoms, such as fatigue, cognitive difficulties and lack of desire to do activities are often mistaken for side effects of physical illnesses in older adults.
In this article we are going to look at what depression in older adults looks like and what causes depression in seniors.
What does depression look like?
Normally, depression symptoms include sadness, fatigue, loss of pleasure, social withdrawal and isolation, weight loss or gain, loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, loss of self-worth, increased use of alcohol or drugs, and thoughts of death and suicide. Although we all associate depression with the first symptom, sadness, many seniors report not feeling sad at all. Instead, many complain about physical problems, lack of motivation and lack of energy more than other symptoms. Often, physical complaints, such as worsening of physical symptoms or new symptoms such as headaches or arthritis pain are often the principal symptoms in the elderly. The following are common symptoms of depression in older adults:
- Increased or aggravated aches and pains
- Anxiety and worry
- Memory problems
- Lack of motivation
- Lack of energy
- Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness
- Slowed movement and speech
- Loss of interest in previously exciting activities
- Loss of interest in socialization
As you can see, it could be easy for loved ones and caregivers to mistake depression in older adults for worsening physical problems or mental issues such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, this leads to lack of proper diagnosis of depression in older adults.
Causes of depression in older adults
Although depression is not a normal part of ageing, research shows that there is a greater likelihood of depression occurring when other health conditions are present. For example, researchers estimate that nearly one quarter of those who experience a stroke will experience major depression. Below are the most common causes of depression in older adults.
- Health problems: Medical problems can cause depression in older adults. This may be a direct result of the illness or a psychological reaction to the illness and it’s symptoms. Any chronic medical condition can lead to depression or make symptoms worse, but there are a few that are notorious for older adults. These include dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, lupus, thyroid disorders, diabetes, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, stroke and heart disease.
- Medications: Unfortunately, some side effects to prescription medications can also cause or mimic symptoms of depression. These include tranquilizers and sleeping pills, beta-blockers, blood pressure medication and other heart disease drugs, ulcer medication, cholesterol drugs, painkillers and arthritis drugs and Parkinson’s disease medications.
- Grief and recent bereavements: Older adults frequently have to deal with the loss of other elderly friends and loved ones, including spouses. While grief and depression are two different things, grief, especially repeated grief as can happen with older adults can lead to depression.
- Loneliness and isolation: Many elderly live alone, and can have a dwindling social circle due to illness and death. It is understood by psychological researchers that loneliness can be a major contributing factor to depression. In addition, the elderly may lose their homes and be relocated to nursing facilities where they must make new friends. Another factor that leads to isolation is the inability to move around or drive due to physical illness restraints.
- Reduced sense of purpose and worth: The elderly may feel a reduced sense of purpose due to lack of work. In addition, difficulty moving around can also make it difficult for the elderly to find purpose and fun in their lives.
- Fear and anxiety: All of the above issues can cause fear and anxiety in the elderly. In addition, there can be high anxiety over financial problems, health issues and the idea of death and dying.