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Spotting signs of depression in older people

Older adults can fall into a state of clinical depression for a multitude of reasons. From losing a partner or friend to no longer being able to do something they love, depression is increasingly common in the older generation, and all too often goes untreated. Around one in five people over the age of 65 are affected by the condition, and with many of these people feeling reluctant to ask for help, this age group also has the highest rates of suicide of any age group.

Depression in younger people is often associated with tearfulness, feeling sad and generally being deflated. In older adults it can look a lot different, with typical symptoms including:

  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Loss of motivation
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Lack of concentration
  • Changes in appetite
  • Confusion
  • Memory loss

Many of these symptoms are similar to the early stages of other conditions, notably dementia, which can make a diagnosis difficult to attain. However, if you suspect an older person may be suffering with depression, it’s important to seek help early on so they can get the support they need to recover. Once diagnosed, depression is very treatable, and older adults can look forward to a much brighter future.

Grief versus depression

As we grow older, we suffer many losses in our lives. These aren’t always losses of people; we could lose mobility, our career, our health or independence. It’s normal to grieve over these losses, even if it continues for some time. If you’re worried that an older person is depressed, take a moment to check it’s not actually grief that they are experiencing.

Grief tends to be a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions. Along with the sadness and tearfulness that can come with a loss, the person will usually have a balance of happy memories too. They will still be able to laugh at a joke, to enjoy certain parts of their lives. Depression is a much more continual down, extinguishing all signs of joy in a very ruthless, universal fashion.

What to do if your loved one is depressed

Overcoming depression can be hard, but it’s no good just asking them to ‘snap out of It’. Just thinking about all the things they need to do to get out of this hole can feel overwhelming, and can set them back rather than encouraging them forward. Small steps at a time are much more manageable, so try one thing each day to help them feel more energetic and hopeful once more. For example:

Stay engaged: Find ways to help them connect to the outside world again. Loneliness and isolation are huge triggers for elderly depression, so seek out activities such as volunteer opportunities or local clubs to help them become social again.

Adopt healthy habits: Going for a walk now can boost their mood for up to two hours, so get them out in the fresh air for some exercise and sunlight. Minimise sugars and refined carbohydrates, and focus on quality protein with plenty of fruit and veg to bolster their wellness from the inside out.

Get professional help: There is no shame in asking for professional assistance, and indeed you should seek medical guidance as soon as you can. Older adults can be sensitive to drug side effects, so any antidepressant medication should be closely monitored. Counselling and therapy can be used in conjunction with or as an effective alternative to any medicines, to address the root cause of their mental state.

People of our older generation were raised in a time where mental illness was highly stigmatised and misunderstood. They may not even believe depression to be a real illness, and might feel too ashamed to seek help, even from their own family. For this reason, it’s important to notice behavioural changes in our older loved ones, and to give them the support they need in a patient, compassionate way. 

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