Understanding Depression in Older Adults

The experience of growing older is different for us all. Our health, history, and support systems can all have significant impacts on the aging process. As we age, there is an increased likelihood that we will endure the death of a loved one and need to cope with chronic health conditions. Depression is one chronic condition which is too often overlooked within the older adult population.  Some might consider it to be a flaw in personality and worry that discussion of depression will be brushed off or cause humiliation, and might therefore be reluctant to broach the subject themselves.

Depression is often dismissed in our society, unlike other chronic conditions such as arthritis, COPD, and diabetes to name a few. It is important to recognize that depression is not simply a controllable reaction to life’s challenges, but rather it is a diagnosed medical illness which should be addressed professionally. Depression is cited as the greatest risk factor for suicide in the elderly population of the United States. According to the fact sheet titled “Depression in Older Persons” published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), research indicates that older adults are more likely to seek medical treatment for other ailments than they are for depression.

While many people with depression have experienced episodes at various stages of life, still others experience first onset during the older adult stage. Symptoms of depression can be mistaken for signs of other illnesses such as dementia, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease that can often occur later in life. Some conditions, like stroke or macular degeneration, and surgical procedures have been associated with the development of depression. One recommendation that NAMI notes is that “depression should be assessed as a possibility if recovery from medical procedure is delayed, treatments are refused or problems with discharge are encountered.”

Symptoms can also differ in the older adult population versus the younger population. NAMI notes that depression can be characterized by things such as confusion, social withdrawal, loss of appetite, irritability, and weight loss. It is imperative that a medical professional establish the difference between natural sadness and grief that might be occurring and clinical depression, which doesn’t go away on its own and lasts for months. A physical exam and review of current medications can reveal if depressive symptoms are being caused by another medical illness and if a medication change can impact symptom intensity.

To learn more from the NAMI fact sheet cited in this blog, visit http://www2.nami.org/Content/NavigationMenu/Mental_Illnesses/Depression/Depression_Older_Persons_FactSheet_2009.pdf.

At Weatherby & Associates, PC, we understand that you or your loved one may be living with depression, which can be a barrier to establishing necessary long-term planning.  If you have any questions or would like to attend one of our free workshops, please contact us at 860-769-6938.

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