Seniors and Mental Health: Depression is part of aging right? WRONG!!

By: Audrey Miller MSW, RSW, CCRC, CCLCP
Spring 2009

The majority of Canadian men and women from the ages of 55-74 report they are satisfied with their lives and are currently in good health*. While periods of depression may occur among seniors, it is important to remember that it is not a normal part of aging.

Depression is the most common mental health concern for older adults, affecting between 15 to 20 percent of older adults living in the community. It is not a normal part of aging. Symptoms such as decreased energy, poor sleep and preoccupation with health problems should be viewed as possible symptoms of a treatable illness and are NOT a result of the aging process.

Currently 13% of Canada’s mental health population consists of individuals who are 65 years and older. In Ontario alone there are approximately 1.5 million seniors, which represents 40% of Canada’s population.

Treatment for depression works, yet too many people remain undiagnosed and untreated because they don’t recognize the signs and symptoms of depression.

Mental health specialists generally agree on the following definition of major depression:

  1. Symptoms persist for two weeks or longer
  2. People either have depressed moods or seem unable to enjoy life.
  3. Major depression should be considered if four of the following seven criteria are present:
  • A change in sleeping habits (more or less than usual)
  • A change in eating habits or weight
  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling worthless or excessively guilty
  • Marked restlessness or slowed-down movements
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Depression can be defined as an imbalance of brain chemicals triggered by stress and life events, including biological, psychological and social factors.

Depression is NOT a character or personality flaw.

Many of the signs of depression may also indicate other problems or medical conditions – It is important to consult with a doctor to determine if your symptoms indicate depression or another medical condition.
Depression is often difficult to recognize among the senior population and it tends to be under diagnosed. Living with depression not only prevents older adult from fully enjoying their lives but it puts a strain upon their health, which can lead to other medical concerns. It is also very difficult for their caregivers and places a strain on their health as well.
What we do know is that there is no one cause for depression- every individual is unique in what may cause their depression, and what may trigger a depressive episode. Some possible causes and risk factors include genetics and family history, brain chemistry, personality, major illness, medications & alcohol, and life events. Risk factors for serious depression, particularly in older adults, may include loss and bereavement, lack of social support, isolation, living in poverty, being a caregiver, and abuse.
Having depression could also increase the risk of suicide among older adults, particularly in older males. Seniors account for more than 9% of all suicide deaths in Canada. Older adults who are over the age of 60 are five times more likely to have a higher risk rate of suicide than younger people. If you feel that a friend or a loved one is suicidal, encourage them to seek out help either from a doctor, friend, crisis centre or, mental health agency.
Some things to keep in mind:

  • Keep a positive attitude. Remember that slowing down does not mean you have to come to a complete stop. Chances are you will still be able to do almost all the things you used to; you may just need to take a little more time and learn to pace yourself.
  • See your family doctor regularly. He/she can, then, deal with any changes or symptoms that require medical attention.
  • Be careful about your medications. As you get older, they may begin to interact differently with other drugs and to affect you differently than before. Make sure your doctor knows about all your medications, even those prescribed by another doctor.
  • Take responsibility for your own health. Do not hesitate to ask your doctor questions; some do not offer explanations unless asked.

Depression is a serious disorder that is treatable. In addition, dealing with an individual who is suffering from depression or at risk of suicide can be absolutely overwhelming for a caregiver. Although the caregiver is providing care and assistance to their loved ones they must also look after their own emotional, mental, and physical well-being.

While all of us may feel sad from time to time, sadness is not depression and it is important to remember that depression is not a normal part of aging.

References and thanks to:

Peer Support Groups for Older Persons with Depression and Those Who Care about Them: A Manual to Help You Get Started .
Canadian Coalition for Seniors Mental Health (CCSMH)
Seniors’ Mental Health Research and Knowledge Exchange Network and Randi Fine, Older Persons’ Mental Health and Addictions Network of Ontario

*Statistics Canada 2005

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