Recognize signs of depression in seniors and learn how to help

November 8th, 2017

By: Sharon Roth Maguire, MS, RN, GNP-BC Chief Clinical Quality Officer, BrightStar Care

woman with caregiver looking at photo albumHas mom stopped wearing lipstick when she used to put it on every morning? Does dad no longer go to once-treasured Wednesday coffee get-togethers with friends?

Family members often tell us that mom or dad “just aren’t themselves anymore.” Such changes in personality or lifestyle can be signs of depression. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 6.5 million of the 35 million Americans age 65 and older are affected by depression – or nearly 1 in 5.

Unfortunately, many seniors don’t receive treatment for depression. They may think that what they’re feeling is normal and not want to burden their loved ones with it, or they have been raised not to talk about their feelings. And while it’s hard to believe in today’s culture, there’s still a stigma surrounding depression.

Depression in seniors is not a normal part of aging. Below I’ll walk you through some things to look out for to spot depression in your loved ones and what you can do to help them.
 

Why seniors may become depressed

Aging or certain health conditions can impair our ability to perform once-routine activities, such as bathing, dressing, using the toilet, walking, cooking, or managing finances. No one, no matter their age, wants to be dependent on others or realize they may be unable to live on their own. It changes how we see ourselves and how we relate to others.

Depression is more likely to occur when a person has a chronic condition such as diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. This is often due to the tremendous life changes these conditions can cause, such as limiting mobility or making it a challenge to do things you enjoy.

Symptoms of depression also can be a side effect of certain medications, including those for high blood pressure, stroke, or heart attack. Seniors may be more prone to these side effects because their bodies are less efficient at metabolizing drugs.

Social isolation can contribute to depression. There are many reasons older adults may be socially isolated, including:

  • Living alone, often because they have lost a spouse
  • Their network of friends becomes smaller as people die
  • Their children and grandchildren live far away
  • Functional decline makes it difficult to get out of the house

Because people with depression may have a harder time caring for their health, such as taking prescribed medications or eating well, they also are at increased risk for medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stroke. This is just one reason it’s important to recognize the signs of depression and encourage treatment.

Signs of depression to watch for in seniors

Family members often have an inkling that a loved one is depressed. They know something isn’t quite right, but may not know what.

If your loved one is experiencing any of these symptoms for more than a month, they may be suffering from depression:

  • Change in weight or appetite
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Memory problems or confusion
  • Neglecting personal care
  • Persistent sad or anxious mood
  • Pulling away from social interactions

Be aware that your loved one also may complain of physical pain, such as a headache, upset stomach, or arthritis pain, instead of discussing their feelings of sadness or loneliness.

How you can help a loved one who is depressed

Once you’ve identified signs of depression, don’t ignore them. Encourage your loved one to seek help from a mental health professional, because treatment is available. Treatment can include medication, psychotherapy, or complementary therapies such as exercise, dietary supplements, or acupuncture.

Tips for helping a depressed loved one include:

  • Listen with compassion and without judgment: Sometimes just opening the door for a loved one to talk about their feelings is enough to prompt them to get help. Some people are embarrassed to bring up the subject themselves.
  • Participate in treatment: Ask if they would like you to accompany them to appointments. Coordinate transportation if necessary. Help them manage medication.
  • Plan activities they enjoy: Depression is less likely when there is consistent mental and physical stimulation.
  • Schedule visits: Interaction with loved ones can combat social isolation.

Additional reading: Managing depression in seniors

How registered nurses help seniors with depression

When we begin working with your loved one, your BrightStar Care registered nurse will perform a comprehensive screening of all aspects of their life. Then we create a personalized plan of care that may include psychological approaches as well as physical and functional. Our registered nurses understand how to spot symptoms of depression, and if we suspect it, we’ll suggest they be seen by a mental health professional for evaluation.

Your loved one is much more than the medical condition they have. During our initial screening, we’ll also discuss their interests, passions, and personal history. Our care team then weaves these details into their care. For example, I love dogs and the Green Bay Packers. My care team might chat with me about dogs during visits or suggest we make dog biscuits and deliver them to the local animal shelter. Or we might discuss football and reminisce about past trips to Lambeau Field.

These authentic interactions can contribute to reducing the symptoms of depression. I’ve heard firsthand how relationships with caregivers have made a difference in people’s lives. Some stories leave me speechless: “I didn’t think life was worth living anymore until I met my caregiver.”

No one should have to live life with depression. It’s a medical condition that can be treated. If your loved one “just isn’t themselves anymore,” encourage them to see a mental health professional to start the journey back to their old self.