Caregiving: Depression in the Elderly

June 1, 2007 at 1:40 pm  •  Posted in Depression by  •  0 Comments

By Rita L. Calderon, MSW, LCSW-R

Consequences of Treating vs. Not Treating Depression
Who Has It, How Many, What Kind?
Causes of Depression
Identifying Depression in Older People



Caregiver stress and caregiver depression are receiving much attention in America today. This is because caregivers talk about their feelings and frustrations in caring for the sick and elderly. Many older people suffer from depression too, but they tend not to talk about it in the same way. Therefore, recognizing and addressing depression in seniors is not as clear cut.

One obstacle is the negative stigma and certain misperceptions about depression and mental health services held by many seniors. Elderly people of all economic classes and all ethnic groups have their own “elder culture” in a sense, with their own way of viewing mental health. In fact this culture of older people is similar in certain ways to other cultures. Many, though certainly not all, seniors and people of Hispanic, African American, Asian other traditional groups share some similar ideas about depression:

They have traditionally called depression “the blues.” Rather than seek professional help, they try to “get over it.” The problem is that sometimes people cannot get over it and move on. Their low moods can become “infectious,” affecting their caregivers and families, and the situation is frustrating and discouraging for both the older person and the caregiver.

They see depression, and seeking professional help for it, as something foreign. They view mental health services as something for “crazy people” and not them. Older people have pride in having lived so long and feel too proud to seek outside help.

They see emotional problems as too private to share with a “stranger,” i.e. the therapist. In the past they may have shared feelings with their families who cared for them, but now have a hard time adjusting to living alone. Some people shared private feelings with their local priest, but demographics are changing, priests relocate, etc. With all these lifestyle changes many elderly feel isolated and left out of society.

Consequences of Treating vs. Not Treating Depression

All these factors are reasons that addressing depression in the elderly is so important. But the most vital reason is that not treating depression can place older people at greater risk for additional health problems, both physical and mental. Not getting dressed, not getting out of the house and getting exercise can lead to hypertension, diabetes, and earlier deterioration of the heart, the lungs, the bones and muscles, etc. It can also lead to deeper, debilitating depression.

Caregivers can help older people to understand that “normal” people with depression can benefit enormously from professional help. With proper identification of depression in the elderly, it can be treated and resolved, improving their sense of well being and their physical health. In many cases treatment can turn their lives around.

Who Has it, How Many, What Kind?

Of the 35 million Americans who are 65 and older, about six and a half million suffer from some form of depression. Most of these people have had depression on and off for much of their lives, while others have developed it later in life. Depression affects the elderly across economic lines, although poverty is an important factor.

Much evidence points to depression as a brain illness. However, what triggers it varies. Some people with a long history of depression seem to have a pessimistic attitude about life in general, regardless of circumstances. Others get depressed later in life and only when faced with a difficult event; this is sometimes called a ‘reactive’ depression because it is a reaction to stressful events. This type of depression may be temporary and easier to resolve.

Causes of Depression

The older people get, the more major life events they experience which can cause depression. Some of the major risk factors to look out for are:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Medical illness
  • Social isolation and loneliness
  • Divorce, separation, abusive relationships
  • Economic and other chronic stress
  • Caring for an ill spouse or adult child
  • Estrangement from family
  • General decline of one’s former abilities
  • Relocation or other major lifestyle change

When older people have little to do, and feel they are no longer capable of their former activities like working, driving, sports, etc., they experience a loss of feeling competent. They feel their best years are behind them and that there is not much purpose to life. They may not be suicidal, but they have lost their desire to live; this condition in clinical terms is apathy, and it can get much worse if not addressed.

Identifying Depression in Older People

Some symptoms of depression in the elderly are:

  • Loss of appetite for food or overeating
  • Disruption in sleep patterns  (either too little or too much, especially excessive napping during the day)
  • Loss of desire for things they used to enjoy, such as reading, walking, etc.
  • Loss of interest in prior social activities, including family activities

All of this sounds so gloomy. It is easy to look at the life of an older person and think, “I’d be depressed too if it were me.” But aging can be a time of peace and fulfillment and even freedom from prior burdens. No one should have to suffer prolonged depression when there is treatment available.
An over-arching issue for many older people is social isolation and loneliness. When people are more connected socially, they feel much better. Talking to a therapist is often the first important link in helping the elderly to regain connection and enhance their ego strength. Treatment options are diverse: individual counseling or therapy, therapeutic groups, and referrals to community centers and structured social activities.

Clinical social workers can make a proper assessment as to the presence of clinical depression, its severity, and how best to treat it. Sometimes medication is needed and sometimes not; the social worker makes a referral to a certified psychologist or psychiatrist who can prescribe medications. All of these mental health professionals can make assessments if there are more serious problems like suicidal thoughts, or the need for hospitalization.

Often counseling or psychotherapy alone is sufficient, with regular monitoring for the need of medication. Counseling and psychotherapy by a certified clinical social worker/ psychotherapist helps because it is a very specific type of “active listening” with feedback and guidance. Clinical social workers are professionally trained to ask the right questions, and to encourage and help people express in their own words what is working and what is not working so well in their lives. In this way older people learn, or re-activate, coping skills to make them feel better and manage their emotional and practical lives much more effectively.


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