Depression in the Elderly: Underestimated and Overlooked

Studies by the CDC estimate that 7 million adults over the age of 65 experience depression each year. It can affect up to 20% of elders, twice the rate in younger people. Suicide rates are also higher than in younger adults, and more closely tied to depression.

Unfortunately, depression in the elderly is underdiagnosed and undertreated. Only half of elders with mental health issues get treatment of any kind, and less than 3% get treated by a mental health specialist. There are many reasons for this, including stigma and generational divides. Additionally, many people falsely believe (whether consciously or not) depression is a normal part of aging. Diagnosis and treatment are also complicated by the fact that elders experience many different symptoms.

Symptoms of Depression in the Elderly

Physical symptoms and confusion play a larger role in depression in the elderly, so it may be easily mistaken for other issues. Because elders may already be isolated and have co-occurring medical conditions, it’s easy for these symptoms to go undetected.

Common symptoms of depression in the elderly include:

  • feeling sadness or “emptiness”
  • feeling irritable, anxious or guilty (the person may appear cranky or angry, more than “sad”)
  • feelings of hopelessness
  • sudden lack of enjoyment in favorite pastimes, withdrawal from activities/socialization
  • fatigue
  • memory/concentration problems
  • sleep problems
  • changes to diet (overeating, not eating enough or eating poorly)
  • suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • aches and pains
  • headaches
  • digestive issues, abdominal pain

Isolation: It Isn’t Easy Living Alone

Studies have shown that loneliness is linked to depression, lower quality of life and increased vulnerability to physical and mental health problems in the elderly. But is living alone the same as being lonely? No. However, studies have confirmed a strong correlation (and thus, correlation with depression). For example, in one study of seniors, those living alone were twice as likely to express loneliness. They also had significantly higher numbers of depressive symptoms.

Living alone is not easy, and can clearly put elders at risk. But, living alone does not have to be lonely. And, our team will share ways to combat this.

Additionally, rates of depression in the elderly rise for those who need help with daily tasks. This can be both cause and effect as depression leads to impaired functioning. Depression also increases the perception of poor health.

Combatting Depression: Solutions


Helping elders maintain an active, engaged life and overall health can protect them from depression. Here are a few prevention tips to lower the key risks for depression in the elderly:

Social support:

Maintain regular contact with family members with visits, calls, and video conferencing. Make a schedule with your siblings and extended family members to check in with your parents.

Help make it easier for them to continue activities and socialization. Is Mom still driving? If not, hire a driver to take her to regular events, outing with friends, church, etc. She may feel awkward asking people for rides. You might suggest a senior driving service, but if she’s never used it before she may be hesitant. Set it up for her; make it simple.

Staying active:

Hire a senior-friendly personal trainer to come into the home. Find fun classes at the senior center or YMCA (swimming, dancing, walking groups). Hire a caregiver and include a daily walk as one of the tasks. Help modify activities/hire help so Mom or Dad can continue to get out and stay active. Explore different local activities. For example, our local performing arts center has specially-priced performances and offers accessibility services. Find out more about this and other activity suggestions from our team.

Encourage and provide support for varied activities at home. For example, set up an iPad so Mom can listen to church podcasts and video chat. Get talking books. Show Dad how to play games on the computer. These things engage the brain in different ways than TV.

Healthy diet:

Nutritional deficits can contribute to depression and poor health. Order a healthy meal-delivery service. Set up grocery delivery. Hire a caregiver to cook nutritious, delicious meals (and provide mealtime company). For resources and tips, read Three Easy Ways to Help with Better Nutrition.

Staying healthy/medical management:

Get a regular medication review. Use a medication management system, or home care med management. Make sure your parents take advantage of preventative care and screenings. Set up an evaluation if you notice memory or concentration problems. Don’t mistake treatable depression for dementia or aging.

Help and Treatment for Depression in the Elderly

With your new awareness of depression in the elderly, you can more easily spot potential symptoms. Attend a doctor’s appointment with your parent and bring up your concerns. You may want to communicate beforehand about the symptoms you’ve noted. This is especially important if your parent is hesitant to acknowledge it. Ask directly for a depression screening. Talk to a patient advocate. They can also help you find a specialist, such as a geriatrician or geriatric psychiatrist.

Support for Depression Treatment:

Once the problem’s been identified, your loved one will need support. The doctor will likely prescribe medication, and perhaps therapy. Make sure your loved one’s taking the medications properly. Since we know elders with depression function more poorly, consider other areas of need. A caregiver can help with home safety and personal care.

Your loved one may also need some help keeping up with the household. Having a clean, organized home is safer, healthier…and calming. Nutritious meals keep the body and mind stronger. Exercise and activity support brain health.

Finally, make a plan to deal with suicide risk. This is another reason to consider hiring a home health aide and making a regular check-in schedule. Know the warning sides of suicide and get immediate help.

Concerned about a loved one?

Call us anytime at 727-447-5845 or contact us online for more information/to request a consultation.

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