Recognizing Depression in the Elderly

by | Feb 15, 2012

By Nancy Travers

You’ve just visited your parents who live out of state and you heard your mother complain all about the neighbors, the food and more. Should you mark all of this complaining as a sign of depression? Maybe.

According to the National Institutes of Health, 2 million people aged 65 or older suffer from full-blown depression. Another 5 million suffer from lesser forms of depression.

Many elderly are isolated and face health problems that affect their quality of life. These health issues can include arthritis, diabetes, heart conditions and more. In order to dull the pain, many elderly take prescription drugs that include depression as a side effect or they abuse alcohol.

They may also find that many of their friends have passed on and they have lost many of their social connections. Families move away from each other and while this is can be a great thing in terms of freedom and independence, it can also mean that grandparents and grandchildren may only see each other a few times a year.

Elderly people may have also lost their sense of purpose or they may feel a loss of identity. They may also feel helpless and hopeless if they lack mobility.

Here are a few signs of depression in the elderly:


  1. Elderly depressed people may complain about minor ailments such as gas or constipation, rather than openly say they are sad or lonely. Many elderly express their depression through pacing, wringing their hands, or constantly worrying about money, their health or current events.
  2. They may not attend to their personal hygiene habits
  3. They are apathetic or indifferent to activities they once enjoyed
  4. They may not be able to sleep or eat and these symptoms may be disguised as other health concerns
  5. The elderly person may have a new fixation about death and dying.


Depression can be treated with medication as well as through support groups and therapy. The elderly should also be screened for hormone imbalances, B12 deficiency, thyroid problems, and other nutritional deficiencies. How can you help?

First thing that you can do to help an elderly person you might think is depressed is to


  1. Lend an empathetic ear and then suggest activities you can do together, such as a walk, a museum trip or simply a trip to the grocery store. Laugh with them and share funny stories.
  2. Make sure that your elderly person has scheduled activities at the community center to attend in your absence. Ensure that they are connected to their family via phone and computer if their family lives far away.
  3. Fix healthy meals for the older adult or have meals delivered to their home
  4. Encourage them to be a pet owner. Pets will keep them company and give them renewed purpose and responsibility
  5. Encourage all depression medications are taken properly and watch for signs of suicide. If there are signs, seek professional help.


It’s also important to know the signs between depression and dementia. With dementia, the mental decline happens slowly, while with depression, it’s much faster. Both dementia and depression will weaken the elderly person’s concentration skills, but in the dementia victim, the person won’t even care about their memory loss. In either case, make sure the elderly person sees a doctor to be properly diagnosed.

Depression in the elderly can commonly be confused with grief, but the way to find out is by talking, offering support and being persistent in them seeing their doctor. Your vigilance might save their life.

Nancy Travers is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She specializes in all types of relationships; We all want them, We all need them; How to get em and Keep them. Nancy’s office is located at 1600 Dove Street, Suite 260, Newport Beach, CA 92660.

For more information or to make an appointment, call 949-510- 9423 or contact us.
copyright a division of Counseling Corner, Inc.


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