Depression among senior citizens rarely gets get much public attention but it is a significant problem – and it can be addressed.
In a culture that prizes youth and activity above most other things, the whole idea of aging is often considered depressing. So it is not uncommon for us to feel that loneliness, sadness and even depression are to be expected as people age.
Unfortunately, these attitudes can mean the aging individual doesn’t get the help they can – and should – receive.
Depression is common in the elderly population. Sometimes it is simply the continuation of a chronic condition experienced throughout adult life. Other times, it starts for the first time later in life.
Occasionally, it occurs at the same time or as a result of serious illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer or other age-related conditions. However, it can also start up independent of physical ailments.
Even when it occurs in conjunction with other illnesses, depression is treatable and should be dealt with. Co-existing depression can delay recovery or worsen the outcome of other illnesses.
Another common way that depression can affect the elderly is as a side effect of many medications. If you are concerned that you or a loved one may be experiencing medication-related depression, speak with your doctor.
The risk of suicide is greater among seniors. And according to several studies, up to 75 per cent of suicide victims visited a physician within a month of their death. This highlights the need to pay more attention to depression among the aging population.
However, suicide is not the only way that depression can shorten life. The illness also increases the risk of complications in other medical problems, as well as increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Depression is not well recognized in seniors and, as a result, is under-treated. The individuals themselves, and even health care providers, tend to dismiss symptoms of depression as a normal part of aging when this is not the case.
Depression can be treated effectively in the elderly just as it is in the younger population.
Some feelings of loneliness or lack of energy might be more common among the elderly, but depression is more than this. Feeling sad at a loss or when upsetting things happen are normal experiences and an inevitable part of life. But feeling very bad almost all of the time, for extended periods or when there are no obvious reasons for sadness is not normal.
Because symptoms of depression are similar to symptoms caused by some other conditions, it is important to see a physician and possibly a geriatric specialist for a full evaluation and diagnosis.
Depression is a chronic, recurrent condition and when being treated the goal should be complete remission of symptoms and a prevention of future recurrences. Do not be satisfied with partial improvement.
Depression in seniors should not be left untreated.
Dr. Latimer is president of Okanagan Clinical Trials and a Kelowna psychiatrist.