Depression and Aging: How to Help a Parent with Depression
Life isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. There are times when all of us feel down, don’t feel motivated or can’t see the point. But when is feeling blue actually depression? Are aging and depression related? Does depression in seniors occur because, as we get older, we lose friends, loved ones and our good health? What are the signs of depression in seniors?
While it isn’t a natural part of aging, life events, medications and medical conditions that can contribute to depression in seniors. In fact, studies show most older adults feel satisfied with their lives. However, important life changes that happen as we get older may cause feelings of uneasiness, stress and sadness. But after a period of adjustment, many seniors regain their emotional balance. Those who don’t could develop depression.
We’ll discuss what depression is, some common causes, and some ways to help. When it comes to how to help a parent with depression, the first thing to do is recognize it and then talk about it.
What Is Depression?
Depression is more than feeling bummed out. Depression is when you have trouble with daily life for weeks at a time. Doctors call this condition “depressive disorder” or “clinical depression.” While there may be societal messages that say depression is a sign of weakness or a character flaw, depression is a real illness, and most people need treatment to get better. You can’t just “snap out of” clinical depression. As of 2019, nearly 4 million seniors — about 8% of the senior population — reported frequent mental distress during 14 or more of the last 30 days.
There are several types of depressive disorders.
Major depression: Interferes with the ability to work, sleep, study, eat and enjoy life. An episode of major depression could occur only once, but usually people have several episodes.
Persistent depressive disorder: This is a depressed mood that lasts for at least two years. A person diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder may have episodes of major depression along with periods of less severe symptoms, but symptoms must last for two years to be considered persistent depressive disorder.
Vascular depression: If your loved one experiences depression for the first time later in life, their depression may be related to age-related changes that occur in the brain and body. For example, seniors can suffer from restricted blood flow, a condition called ischemia. Over time, blood vessels may stiffen and prevent blood from flowing normally to the body’s organs, including the brain. This condition is called “vascular depression.” Those with vascular depression also may be at risk for heart disease, stroke or other vascular illness.
Recognizing Depression in Seniors
Sometimes depression symptoms in seniors can show up as being tired, having trouble sleeping, or seeming grumpy and irritable. They may also have more medical conditions, such as heart disease, stroke or cancer, which may cause depressive symptoms. Or they may be taking medications with side effects that contribute to depression.
Here are some of the most common symptoms. If your loved one has several of these symptoms for more than two weeks, they may have depression.
- Persistent sad, anxious or “empty” mood
- Unexplained or aggravated aches and pains
- Loss of interest in socializing or hobbies
- Eating more or less than usual, usually with unplanned weight gain or loss
- Lack of motivation and energy
- Sleep disturbances (difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, oversleeping, or daytime sleepiness)
- Loss of self-worth (worries about being a burden, feelings of worthlessness or self-loathing)
- Slowed movement or speech
- Increased use of alcohol or other drugs
- Fixation on death; thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
- Neglecting personal care (skipping meals, forgetting meds, neglecting personal hygiene)
- Irritability, restlessness, or having trouble sitting still
- Moving or talking more slowly
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease with treatment
- Frequent crying
Is It Grief or Depression?
Grieving over the loss of independence, mobility or a loved one is normal and healthy, even if the feelings of sadness last for a long time. Telling the difference between grief and clinical depression isn’t always easy, since they have similar symptoms. However, here are a few telltale signs:
- Grief is a roller coaster involving a wide variety of emotions and a mix of good and bad days. Even when someone is grieving, they still have moments of pleasure or happiness.
- With depression, on the other hand, the feelings of emptiness and despair are constant.
- While there’s no set timetable for grieving, if it doesn’t let up over time, it may be depression.
Is It Dementia or Depression?
A loss of mental sharpness isn’t necessarily a normal part of old age. It could also be a symptom of depression or dementia. Depression and dementia share many similar symptoms, including memory problems, sluggish speech and movements, and low motivation, so it can be difficult to tell them apart.
|Symptoms of Depression||Symptoms of Dementia|
|Mental decline is relatively rapid||Mental decline happens slowly|
|Know the correct time, date, and where they are||Confused and disoriented; become lost in familiar location|
|Difficulty concentrating||Difficulty with short-term memory|
|Language and motor skills are slow, but normal||Writing, speaking and motor skills are impaired|
Whether cognitive decline is caused by dementia or depression, it’s important to see a doctor right away. If it’s depression, treatment will help memory, concentration and energy bounce back. Treatment for dementia can also help improve your loved one’s quality of life. And in some types of dementia, symptoms can be reversed, halted or slowed.
Common Causes of Depression in Older Adults
As we grow older, we often face significant life changes that can increase the risk for depression. These can include:
- Health problems: Illness and disability, chronic or severe pain, or cognitive decline.
- Loneliness and isolation: Living alone, a dwindling social circle due to deaths or relocation, decreased mobility due to illness or a loss of driving privileges.
- Reduced sense of purpose: Retirement can cause a loss of identity, status, self-confidence and financial security. Not being able to do hobbies or other activities you used to do can also impact your loved one’s sense of purpose.
- Fears: Worries about death or dying as well as anxiety over financial problems or health issues.
- Recent bereavement: The death of friends, family members and pets, or the loss of a spouse or partner.
- Genes: People with a family history of depression may be more likely to develop depression.
- Personal history: Seniors who had depression when they were younger are more at risk for developing depression later in life.
Depressive Effects of Medication
If you notice symptoms of depression after a loved one starts a new medication, talk with their doctor. They may be able to lower their dose or switch to another medication that doesn’t impact their mood.
Medications that can cause or worsen depression include:
- Blood pressure medication (e.g., clonidine)
- Beta-blockers (e.g., Lopressor, Inderal)
- High-cholesterol drugs (e.g., Lipitor, Mevacor, Zocor)
- Tranquilizers (e.g., Valium, Xanax, Halcion)
- Calcium-channel blockers
- Medication for Parkinson’s disease
- Sleeping pills
- Ulcer medication (e.g., Zantac, Tagamet)
- Heart drugs containing reserpine
- Steroids (e.g., cortisone and prednisone)
- Painkillers and arthritis drugs
- Estrogens (e.g., Premarin, Prempro)
- Anticholinergic drugs used to treat GI disorders
How You Can Help
The symptoms of depression can make it hard for your loved one to seek help and may drain their energy and feelings of self-esteem. For depressed seniors, if they don’t believe depression is a real illness, they may be too proud or ashamed to ask for assistance or fear becoming a burden to you, so they can have a difficult time talking about it.
Whether they say they’re depressed or not, here’s how to help a parent with depression:
Offer emotional support: Listen to them with patience and compassion. You don’t need to try to “fix” their depression. Don’t criticize feelings expressed, but point out realities and offer hope. You can also help by seeing that your loved one finds a good doctor and gets an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.
Invite them out: Suggest activities to do together that your loved one used to enjoy: walks, an art class, a trip to the movies — anything that provides mental or physical stimulation.
Socialize: Group outings, visits from friends and family members, or trips to the local senior or community center can help combat isolation and loneliness. Be gently insistent if your plans are refused: Depressed people often feel better when they’re around others.
Healthy meals: A poor diet can make depression worse, so make sure your loved one is eating right, with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and some protein at every meal.
Stick with the plan: Depression usually recurs when treatment is stopped too soon, so help your loved one keep up with their treatment plan. If it isn’t helping, look into other medications and therapies. You can also accompany them to appointments and offer moral support.
Watch warning signs. Seek immediate professional help if you suspect your loved one is thinking about suicide. Call the toll-free, 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
Embrace Life at Laurel Circle
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