How to Spot the Warning Signs of Depression

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Everyone feels blue now and then. It’s part of life. But if your loved one no longer enjoys activities that they once liked, they may have a more serious problem. Being consistently depressed can change the way you think and feel. This is called clinical depression.

Being “down in the dumps” for a prolonged period of time is not a normal part of getting older, but it is a common problem that may require medical help. For most people, depression will get better with treatment. “Talk” therapy, medication, and other treatment methods can ease the pain of depression.

As we age, we all face problems that could cause anyone to feel depressed. Seniors often experience a great deal of hardship as their lives, abilities and social circles change. Many deal with friends and loved ones passing away. They may have a tough time getting used to retirement and feel lonely or purposeless. Chronic illnesses can make seniors feel as if they have lost control over their life.

It’s normal to feel sad when these things happen. However, after a period of feeling down, most people usually adjust and regain their emotional balance. Someone who is suffering from clinical depression doesn’t get over those feelings. Without help, the symptoms might last for weeks, months or even years. The good news is that people who are depressed usually feel better with the right treatment.

Warning Signs of Depression

If a loved one exhibits several of these symptoms, and they last for more than two weeks, encourage them to make an appointment with their doctor.

  • An “empty” feeling
  • Ongoing sadness and anxiety
  • Tiredness or lack of energy
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in everyday activities, including sex
  • Sleep problems, including trouble getting to sleep, very early morning waking, and sleeping too much
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Crying too often or too much
  • Aches and pains that don’t go away when treated
  • Difficulty focusing, remembering or making decisions
  • Feeling guilty, helpless, worthless or hopeless
  • Irritability
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • A suicide attempt

If you are a family member, friend, or health care provider of an older person, watch for these clues. Sometimes depression can hide behind a smiling face. A depressed person may appear to feel better or even normal while interacting with others. The symptoms may even seem to go away. But, when someone is very depressed, they usually come back.

Don’t ignore the warning signs. If left untreated, serious depression can lead to suicide. Listen carefully if someone of any age complains about being depressed or says people don’t care about their wellbeing. That person may be indirectly asking for help.

What Causes Depression?

There is no one cause of depression. For some people, a single event can bring on the illness, such as a death in the family or a serious medical diagnosis. For some people, changes in brain chemistry can affect moods and cause depression. Sometimes those under a lot of stress, like caregivers, can feel depressed. Others become depressed for no clear reason, but that does not diminish the gravity of their condition.

Health Issues Can Cause Depression

People with serious illnesses, such as cancer, dementia, heart disease, stroke, or Parkinson's disease, often struggle with depression. They worry about how their condition will change their lives. They might be tired and unable to deal with things that make them sad. Treatment for depression helps them manage both emotional and physical symptoms and improves their quality of life.

Genetics, too, can play a role. Studies show that depression may run in families. Children of depressed parents may be at a higher risk for the condition. Furthermore, depression tends to be a disorder that occurs more than once. Many older people who have been depressed in the past are at an increased risk of experiencing symptoms again.

Depression in Seniors Is Often Overlooked

There are many reasons why depression in older people is often missed or untreated. The signs are much more varied for seniors than younger individuals, making it tricky to recognize the condition and differentiate it from others. For example, depression can appear as increased tiredness, grumpiness or irritability, all of which are stereotypically associated with the aging process. Additionally, confusion and attention problems caused by depression can sometimes look like Alzheimer’s disease or other brain disorders. Mood changes and signs of depression can even be caused by medicines older people may take for arthritis, high blood pressure or heart disease.

It can be difficult for doctors to detect depression in older individuals. A physician who specializes in meeting seniors’ unique health needs, such as a geriatrician, can more easily diagnose and treat complex issues like depression.


Information provided by the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

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4 Comments

Nice heads up article. However, most caregivers WILL ignore the signs of depression. Most are too busy worrying about caregiving. And, when caregivers realize depression is seeping into their lives, most do not have the time to face or treat the problem. Caregivers have become a "learned controlled" environment, caring for everyone but themselves---24/7. Difficult to say this...but, there comes a time when "caregiving is all we seem know." Like human robots...do this, do that, make certain priorities are met--meds taken, hygiene addressed, clothes washed, appointments kept, balancing checking accounts, paying bills, being quiet while they nap, talk to them, play games---anything, so they do not become bored or depressed. With many caregivers not having outside support and no family members to help...yes, we cry, we reach out to nothingness, we are depressed, resentful, we dream, we wish, we don't sleep at night because we hear our loved one roaming throughout the house turning on/off lights, turning the TV volume up/down, yelling and chasing the cat around the house at 2am, opening closet doors, up & down the stairs, etc. Personally, I'm tired of hearing how we should take care of ourselves. A membership in a nearby country club would be nice with an adjacent adult day care for those who are so concerned with caregiver's health. Until society and the medical field broadens choices and provides REAL solutions to address health concerns so caregivers can gain emotional balance and structure in our lives nothing will change...only grow worse. With Alzheimer's on the rise with indicated numbers doubling within the next decade, the bottom is falling out. Soon there will not be adequate 'unpaid' caregivers to care for those in need. Yes, I wish there were solutions---caregivers pray for solutions. However, a Prince Charming showing up on my doorstep is more likely to happen than waiting for REAL resolutions to ease caregiver's responsibilities. Just the way it is. Sorry, I must run. My Alzheimer husband is screaming because his electric razor will NOT turn on the TV! Welcome to my world!
Recently Mom injured her back. The only treatment she accepts is a heating pad. She sits in a lounge chair all day and sometimes sleeps there. I found out she is refusing phone calls from family and friends so am especially worried. Her primary doc isn't helping her. What specialist does she need? She lives nearby w/ sis who disagrees but a month after her back injury she seems no better and is confused and forgetful.
glassgirl, hopefully you got resolution from November 2014. My mom broke her hip 11-2-14. She has slowly improved but in the last month or so seems to have regressed. She probably has always been depressed but now seems more so. A great fear of falling again as she has had a couple of bad experiences with home helpers of late. Dr just put her on a low dose of Zoloft, so we will see how that goes. Hoping if nothing else you are being proactive and doing something to help your mom get better.