Sadness is an inevitable part of life. While it can be painful, it can also be a reminder of the joy we have had–such as when we grieve the fun we had with a departed friend, miss a grandchild who has moved away, or fondly but painfully remember playing fetch with a pet who has died. We all get sad from time to time, but depression is a more intense, all-encompassing emotion. It creeps in and can begin to take over everything, changing personalities and outlooks.
Depression in older adults is not a normal part of aging, and you should not ignore signs of depression in your aging parent. As we age, some medical conditions may mimic signs of depression. Depression may initially masquerade as dementia, for example. The reverse can also be true. Depression may look like another medical condition. Depression can also undermine your loved one’s health, such as when a person feels too sad to take medication, exercise, or prepare healthy meals.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Depression treatment can be highly effective and help your loved one bounce back, feel healthy, and enjoy life to the greatest extent possible.
So how can you tell the difference between normal sadness and depression? Ultimately, you may need an expert to help. It’s normal to experience sadness and grief—including very intense sadness and grief—during periods of stress, after a loss, or when a person experiences regret. Talking, offering support, and validating your loved one’s feelings can help. If it’s depression, though, no amount of your support is going to fix it.
Here’s what you need to know—and how you can help.
Why Do Seniors Become Depressed?
Depression is a complex illness with biological and environmental causes. Doctors don’t fully understand why some people develop depression and others do not. Some risk factors for depression in older adults include:
- A family history of depression
- A serious health crisis or illness
- Chronic stress, including the stress of caregiving
- Lack of physical activity
- Sleep difficulties
- Physical disabilities that affect a person’s daily quality of life
- Weather changes (some people develop seasonal affective disorder in the winter)
For some older adults, depression may begin as grief or sadness about something else, such as the death of a spouse. If a person’s grief seems to overtake everything else and affects their ability to function for a prolonged period, it could be a warning sign of depression.
8 Signs of Depression in Seniors
The most common indicators of depression in seniors include:
Sadness is a key symptom of depression. In depression, though, the sadness may appear for no apparent reason. A person might have a seemingly happy life but be unable to enjoy it, or their sadness may be disproportionate to their situation. For example, a person might be unable to get out of bed for weeks after a minor setback.
Some important differences between depression sadness and other types of sadness and grief include:
- The sadness of depression may be unrelated to a person’s life circumstances.
- People with depression may be unable to feel happy even when their circumstances change.
- The sadness of depression may appear suddenly.
2. Other Mood Changes
Some people with depression experience other mood changes, too. They may even appear not to be sad. This is because people express their suffering in different ways, and culture can influence a person’s emotions. For example, men sometimes appear angry, not sad.
Some mood changes to watch for include:
- Being irritable or short-tempered
- Being passive or withdrawn
- Being unusually aggressive or mean
- Seeming anxious or agitated
- Exhibiting any significant change in behavior or personality
Anhedonia is a unique characteristic of depression. It means the inability to feel pleasure or happiness. People who are sad about a life event or stressed out usually don’t have anhedonia. They can feel temporary moments of joy, especially when things get better.
Depression, though, saps a person’s ability to enjoy the things they love. They may lose interest in their relationships, too. If nothing seems to snap your loved one out of their pain, even temporarily, this is a significant red flag for depression.
4. Weight Changes
Depression can cause weight changes because it changes a person’s behavior and habits. The biological changes of depression may also affect weight. If a person suddenly gains or loses significant weight, or dramatically changes their eating habits, it could signal depression.
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5. Sleep Difficulties
Sleep is vital to a person’s health and well-being, especially as they age. Many people with depression experience sleep difficulties. They may sleep too much or not enough, both of which can exacerbate symptoms. For example, if your loved one can’t sleep, they may feel anxious or agitated. If they sleep too much, they may miss out on time with family.
People with depression may become physically agitated. They may pace, seem anxious, or otherwise appear keyed up. Sometimes, people mistake depression for anxiety because of this agitation.
7. Feelings of Guilt and Worthlessness
People with depression sometimes feel a profound sense of guilt or worthlessness. This may stymie efforts to get them help because some people with depression feel unworthy of help. Talking to them about their symptoms may inspire even further self-loathing. If your loved one devalues everything they do, expresses unreasonable guilt, or seems to hate themselves, that could be depression talking.
8. Thoughts of Death or Suicide
People with depression may be preoccupied with thoughts of death. Even if they do not actually want to die, these thoughts can be intrusive and overpowering. They may obsess over bad things happening to themselves or to people they love or have frequent dreams of dying.
Depression may also cause a person to think of suicide or self-harm. If a person mentions wanting to die, take them seriously. Do not assume this is a cry for attention or try to demean their feelings. Instead, seek emergency help for a loved one in crisis. Contact the Suicide Lifeline online or by dialing 988 on your phone.
How to Help a Loved One with Depression
You cannot cure or treat your loved one’s depression. Depression is a real illness, with physical effects. It’s not a personal failing or something your loved one can think or will their way out of.
Still, there are things you can do to support them and to encourage them to get treatment. Try the following:
- Don’t judge or shame your loved one by telling them to snap out of it, implying their problems aren’t that bad, or guilting them for their depression.
- Learn as much as you can about depression, then share that knowledge with your loved one. Talk about depression as a treatable illness.
- Offer gentle, loving support. Listen to your loved one. Empathize with their feelings. Show up for them. Talk to them about their options for a better life.
- Invite your loved one to do things with you as a distraction from their pain.
- Offer to help your loved one pursue treatment. You might even offer to go with them to the doctor or to a therapist.
- Consider asking your loved one to just try treatment. This may circumvent resistance to treatment and help your loved one feel more in control, especially if they’re part of the group of people who think depression isn’t real.
Senior living communities do not treat depression, but the experience of living in one can reduce many depression risk factors by preventing isolation, loneliness, and a sedentary lifestyle. The right community also offers loving support that can inspire your loved one to seek the mental health treatment they need and deserve.