Everyone feels blue now and then. It’s part of life. But if an aging 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.

Feeling “down in the dumps” for a prolonged period 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 a senior 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.

Symptoms of Depression in Older Adults

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, caregivers and family members should look for the following signs that indicate a senior may be depressed. Sadness isn’t always the only or “main” symptom 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
  • Sleep problems, including trouble falling asleep, 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 caring for an aging loved one, keep an eye out 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, but when someone is very depressed, the symptoms are usually still there.

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 that people don’t care about their well-being. They may be indirectly asking for help.

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What Causes Depression?

There is no one cause of depression. For some people, a single stressful event can bring on symptoms, such as a death in the family or a serious medical diagnosis. Changes in brain chemistry can also affect moods and cause depression. Sometimes those who are under a lot of pressure, 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 often goes undiagnosed and 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 early symptoms of 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.