Spotting Depression in Seniors

According to the National Network of Depression Centers (NNDC), of those who are treated for depression, approximately 80% show improvement in symptoms 4-6 weeks after treatment.

Senior Depression: An Invisible Epidemic

We all have days in which we are sad or have thoughts of hopelessness – but for many, it goes beyond that. Depression (major depressive disorder or clinical depression) is, by definition, a medical illness characterized by a chronic sense of sadness and loss of interest in activities. Depression can often dictate the way in which you feel, think, and act – and if not treated, it can lead to everything from alcohol and drug abuse to attempted suicide.

For something so serious and potentially crippling, it would seem that depression is a rare condition – but the reality is somewhat startling. An estimated 1 in 4 Canadians has a degree of depression serious enough to need treatment at some time in his or her life. In  Canada 10-15% of seniors suffer depressive symptoms. Because of its prevalence in the senior population, many (seniors included) believe that depression is merely a normal aspect of aging. While this isn’t true, there is a strong correlation between what many seniors face and depression because of factors such as increased isolation and physical decline.

While signs of depression may be more obvious to spot in younger people, or even middle-aged adults, it’s easy to overlook them in older adults. That’s because they’re often mistaken for other signs of aging. Studies show that when depressed, seniors may not clearly display typical signs of sadness such as crying. Instead, they tend to withdraw from the people they care about and the things they once loved to do.

Signs of Depression in Seniors and Elders

There are other, less-obvious signs of depression in seniors that you may want to be on the lookout for. If you have a senior loved one who you fear may be facing depression, check for the following:

  • Irritability: This is often expressed in place of sadness, as the latter can be seen as a sign of weakness. Anger and frustration, on the other hand, are thought to be less embarrassing ways of expressing feelings of sadness and worthlessness.
  • Withdraw: As mentioned above, withdrawing not only from people but favorite activities can suggest that a senior loved one is depressed. In many cases, older adults will also stop eating, which can then cause other physical problems to occur.
  • Decrease in Cognitive Ability: Everything from focus level to speech can be affected by depression. One study showed that half of its participants, who were older adults suffering from depression, struggled with certain decision-making skills. Not surprisingly, this can be confused for symptoms of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.
  • Increased Pain: Similar to one’s decrease in cognitive ability, it’s not uncommon to believe that pain comes naturally as we get older. While it’s true that there is some, increased pain is usually indicative of something more. Does the pain make us depressed, or can depression cause pain? Research shows that it essentially goes both ways. Older adults can quickly fall into depression because of pain, but depression also amplifies the pain itself.
  • Digestive Problems: Recent research has shown that we have a tendency to keep stress in our gut, and its well-being can be reflective of our mental health. From frequent bouts of diarrhea or constipation, any chronic changes in bowel behavior can indicate depression.

The Next Steps in Helping Seniors with Depression

If you recognize the aforementioned signs in your senior loved one, don’t dismiss them. It’s important to talk to him or her about what he or she is feeling. Although you may receive some resistance initially, it’s important to let him or her know that you’re there to help. From there, it’s vital that you inform his or her primary health care provider or mental health expert to have symptoms assessed professionally.

In terms of treatment, medical providers may suggest certain medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), or tricyclic antidepressants. Be aware that, while initially beneficial, some medications can cause more harm than good in the long run. Thus, seniors’ behavior should be monitored very carefully, and any changes should be communicated to a physician immediately. Because of the rather volatile nature of medications, it’s often recommended that older adults try and find more natural “therapies” to alleviate symptoms of depression. In most cases, this involves altering or enhancing certain lifestyle habits. These include:

  • Incorporating physical activity into daily routines
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Eating a well-balanced diet
  • Socializing with others as frequently as possible
  • Meeting new people
  • Enjoying a hobby or pastime

Comfort Keepers® Can Help

Our compassionate, professional caregivers can help your aging loved one by either spotting signs of depression, or encouraging healthy lifestyle choices. We can also help provide everything from meal preparation to light housekeeping, and even transportation to your loved one’s preferred destinations in and around town. By and large, our goal is to see that your aging loved one has the means to live a healthy, independent life. Learn more about our services by contacting your local Comfort Keepers® office today.


  • Ministry of Health and Long Term Care.  “Mental Health: Depression”  Web.  2017
  • Huffington Post. “6 Little-Known Signs of Depression in Older Adults” by Kristen Stuart. Web. 2017.
  • National Institute of Mental Health. “Older Adults and Depression.” Web. 2017.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Depression is Not a Normal Part of Growing Older.” Web. 2017.
  • Healthline. “Geriatric Depression.” Web. 2017.
  • National Network of Depression Centers. “Facts about Depression.” Web. 2017.

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