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Depression and the Elderly

Everyone needs social connections to thrive. But as people age, they often find themselves spending more time alone. Loneliness and social isolation are associated with higher rates of depression.

Although many older adults felt isolated and lonely before COVID-19, the pandemic has amplified this situation. Many seniors view visits with family and friends as special events—something to look forward to with excited anticipation. These visits may be what keeps the individual thriving. When they’re changed from in-person contact to just conversations on the phone—or worse, to infrequent or nonexistent contact—depression may be the result.

Prevalence of Depression Among Older Adults

Depression isn’t an inevitable part of getting older. But life’s changes such as retirement, declining health and the death of loved ones can trigger depression.

A 2019 National Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics revealed several statistics regarding depression.

  • 18.4% of adults 65 and older in the survey experienced symptoms of depression.

  • Women were more likely than men to experience symptoms of depression.

  • Asian adults were least likely to experience symptoms of depression compared with Hispanic, white and black adults.

Other statistics revealed by the CDC show:

  • 13.5% of the elderly requiring home care suffer from depression

  • 11.5% of the elderly hospitalized suffer from depression

Medical Conditions and Medication

Any medical condition, especially those that are painful, debilitating or life-threatening, can result in symptoms of depression. On top of that, medications used to treat many of these conditions also increase the risk of depression in older adults. Anti-inflammatory drugs, cardiovascular drugs, chemotherapy drugs, anticonvulsants, hormone drugs , sedatives and stimulants are some of these medications.

Symptoms of Depression

Depression in the elderly can manifest in many ways. It’s important to know the signs of depression and what to look for in seniors. Below are symptoms of depression that may be present.

  • Persistent sadness

  • Feeling worthless or helpless

  • Loss of interest in social activities or hobbies

  • Unexplained or aggravated pain or digestive problems

  • Weight loss or loss of appetite

  • Lack of motivation and energy

  • Increased use of alcohol or drug

  • Fixation on death

  • Memory difficulties

  • Neglecting personal care

  • Pacing or fidgeting

  • Unhealthy sleep patterns

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Excessive worrying

  • Frequent tearfulness

  • Slowed movement or speech

Depression or Grieving?

One of the consequences of getting old is experiencing the decline and death of loved ones. Depending on the size of the family and number of friends, watching people close to them become ill and die may become a frequent occurrence. Besides dealing with the pain of losing someone who may have been a part of their lives for decades, it also reminds them of their own mortality.

Grieving and depression can share symptoms, making it difficult to know which is the cause of the symptoms, but there is one point of distinction. That distinction is the experience of joy.

Emotions can change from hour to hour and day to day, but moments of happiness and pleasure can still be felt when grieving, rather than constant despair.

Depression or Dementia?

Some of the symptoms of dementia and depression can also seem similar. Below are signs of dementia to look for.

  • Becoming confused and disoriented

  • Struggling with short-term memory

  • Not noticing or seeming to care about memory problems

  • Writing, speaking, and language skills become impaired


Antidepressants and therapy are often the recommended treatment. But lifestyle factors can play a big part in helping a senior to feel better, too.

Daily exercise, healthy eating habits and increasing social support are important lifestyle factors that can help individuals struggling with depression. Friends and family members may need to be enlisted to help the senior implement these healthy and healing lifestyle changes.

Establishing routines can help. Examples include going for a walk every day at 9 am, shopping at the market for fresh vegetables and fruit every Saturday afternoon and joining a club or organization that meets every Tuesday at 11 am. The specifics of the activity are less important than the act of actively participating in healthy lifestyle changes.


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