Depression — not a normal part of growing older

“Common, but not normal.” That’s how many mental health observers describe depression in older adults.

Let’s define the term first. Depression is more than just a case of “the blues” that anybody can experience, nor is it the normal grief that occurs after the loss of a loved one, although grief and depression share much in common. Depression is a mood disorder and chronic medical condition, characterized by feelings of sadness, anxiety and/or apathy that last for at least two weeks. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that one-third of widows and widowers meet criteria for depression in the first month after the death of their spouse, with half of those individuals remaining clinically depressed after a year.

Depression itself isn’t a normal part of the aging process, but depression can occur when common aging-related health problems present themselves. NIMH notes, for example, that of the roughly 600,000 Americans who experience a stroke in any given year, nearly one-quarter of them will also experience signs of depression. Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and arthritis can all co-occur with depression. According to a Mental Health America survey on attitudes and beliefs about clinical depression, we’ve admittedly got a lot to learn. Over two-thirds of adults aged 65 and older know little or almost nothing about depression, and less than 40% recognize depression as a health issue. About 58% of people aged 65 and older believe that it is “normal” for people to get depressed as they grow older, even though it isn’t.

A person experiencing depression has feelings of sadness lasting for weeks at a time, including the following:

— Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism;

— Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and/or helplessness;

— Irritability, restlessness;

— Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once enjoyable;

— Fatigue and decreased energy;

— Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions;

— Insomnia, early–morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping;

— Overeating or appetite loss;

— Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts;

— Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not get better, even with treatment.

One item of good news: most older adults are not depressed. Far from it. Estimates of major depression in older people living in the community range from 1-5% in the general older population, and 10-15% among those who are hospitalized or require home healthcare.

Depression is highly treatable, even if severe. That goes for old and young alike. In that way, it’s like countless other conditions. Talk to your healthcare provider, who can examine whether there are underlying conditions or medications causing you to have depression-like symptoms. If there’s no such condition, you may then be referred to a mental health provider. 

Addressing mental health issues makes it more likely that older adults can age successfully. If you’re an older adult who’s stumped on how to get started, that’s okay—contact the Office for the Aging.

 

Golden Living is prepared by the Dutchess County Office for the Aging, Todd N. Tancredi, director. Email him at                ofa@dutchessny.gov.

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