Preventing Depression in Seniors

Tom* of Los Angeles was newly retired and ready to start a new chapter in his life. He planned on traveling and rekindling his love of painting and art. Shortly after he retired, however, he noticed marked changes in the way he felt. He could not get started with the activities he had dreamed of doing.

“I started sleeping poorly, and I felt anxious and restless all day,” Tom recalls. “My friends noticed something was wrong because I didn’t want to talk to them.”

Tom’s situation is not uncommon. Symptoms of depression in seniors are often thought of as a normal part of aging, and sometimes they are even attributed to other conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. According to the National Institute on Aging, however, depression is not a normal part of getting older. Untreated depression can greatly reduce quality of life and even lead to suicide. It can also affect overall health and physical well-being.

Depression can affect 15 to 30 percent of aging adults, so it is important for seniors and their friends and family to watch for some of the depression warning signals. They include:

  • Chronic sleep problems or inability to rest
  • Worrying excessively
  • Difficult time focusing or remembering
  • Increased dependency or withdrawal from friends, family or normal activities
  • Increased complaints of aches or pains that cannot be attributed to other conditions
  • Increased irritability or intolerance
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Changed sex drive
  • Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
  • Lack of energy
  • Appetite changes or weight loss or weight gain
  • Prior history of depression or family history of depression

Preventing Depression

Depression may be more common in older people due to factors such as medications, illness and retirement, but there are some things seniors and caregivers can do to help prevent it. Social activities and interaction are rewarding and can include participating in clubs, volunteer groups or church groups. Seniors can also take adult education classes or do volunteer work to learn new skills and stay active and social.

Regular exercise and a balanced diet are especially important. Exercise releases endorphins into the body to help provide a general sense of well-being. Seniors who exercise also have more energy to participate in other activities that can prevent depression. Exercise can be as simple as a daily walk or something more social like participating in dance or fitness classes. A balanced diet can help prevent mood swings and physical ailments that can contribute to feeling down.

With the encouragement of his doctor’s advice, Tom, who used to run 10Ks until he suffered a heel injury, took up mountain biking. “I ride almost every day for at least an hour,” he says.

Seniors who are undergoing major life changes should be monitored closely. Although it is common to feel some sadness after retiring, moving or losing a loved one, these feelings can sometimes persist and trigger the start of depression. Family and friends should be supportive and check in frequently to provide seniors the opportunity to talk about their feelings. Also remember that seniors may feel more sadness near the holidays or around anniversaries of loved ones’ deaths.

Treatment for Depression

If depression is suspected, seniors should see a doctor to rule out any health conditions. The doctor will ask questions about symptoms and review health and family history. Medications will also be evaluated, as some can cause symptoms that are very similar to depression.

Different treatments work for different people. Sometimes, mild depression can be treated with exercise, diet changes and increased social and physical activities. If the depression is more serious, patients can be referred to a counselor or psychologist for more care. Antidepressant medications may also be prescribed. Support groups or counseling may be recommended to discuss life changes such as retirement or moving to a new home.

It is very important that progress be monitored. Some treatments may not work, or they may work for only a short time and later need to be adjusted.

Some senior living communities provide mental health monitoring and services. Sunrise Countryside in Sterling, Va., has a psychiatrist who visits patients with mental illness on a regular basis. These communities also do their part to provide activities that help prevent depression in the first place.

“We have exercise classes and other activities for the residents,” says Liz Huibregtse, activity and volunteer coordinator at Sunrise Countryside. “Our nurses also monitor behavior changes and will refer them [patients] to a specialist if necessary.”

For Tom, a variety of treatments were necessary to help his depression, and he now feels happier and healthier. He started therapy and discovered that he spent a lot of time alone. He was encouraged to do volunteer work and to contact his old work colleagues and suggest lunch. Tom now has lunch once a month with a friend from work, and he also still exercises and participates in many activities to stay busy.

“Planning ahead and having goals helps a lot, and if you feel depressed, seek help immediately,” Tom says.

*Last name withheld to protect privacy.