• Depression amongst the elderly is a serious and common problem as our population ages.

  • There are multiple reasons why we develop depression as we get older but it is commonly to do with the increased rate of significant life change that people experience as they age.

  • Common changes include the loss of a life partner, chronic or substantial health issues, and moving from independent living to supported care.

Depression is one of the most commonly diagnosed mental health issues in Australia and in other industrialised countries, and can affect people of all ages. More recently, however, psychologists and counsellors are reporting a greater prevalence of depression in elderly patients. This is perhaps not surprising, as Australia’s aging population is a well-known fact of our times. Indeed, the Department of Health and Aging estimates that the rate of major depressive disorders amongst the elderly is likely to double to approximately 14 percent by the year 2012, due primarily to our aging population.

Why Do the Elderly Get Depressed?

As mentioned above, depression is the single most prevalent mental health issue faced by Australians. Whilst clinical depression has numerous and varying causes, it is not uncommon for depression to be trigger or fueled by significant changes in our life circumstances. Whilst our lives may be subject to change at any age, significant life changing events do tend to become more common as we age.
So what type of change, in particular, might cause depression amongst the older or more elderly members of our population?

Retirement: Australians commonly retire from work (or substantially reduce their working hours) at around 60 years of age. Whilst some people revel in the luxury of time afforded by retirement, for many of us, retirement from a long held job or career can leave us feeling bored and unsure of how to occupy our time. Retirement can also lead people to feel insignificant as if they are no longer contributing to society in a valuable way. The financial constraints of retirement can also place pressure on the elderly.

Illness and Frailty: Depression amongst the elderly is not uncommon when the body is affected by illness or disease. For many older people, their minds are still active and they may feel like they are much younger, but illness, pain and physical limitations press them down to the point where they begin to feel as if they would rather not participate in life than face the rest of their years with a body that is breaking down, particularly if faced with chronic illnesses like diabetes, arthritis, spinal defects, heart problems and other health issues.

In any event, as people age, their bodies and minds age with them, and some loss of either physical and/or mental capacity is almost inevitable as we get older. Frailty of body or mind can hinder our ability to participate in activities we love, it can limit our capacity to socialize and connect with family and friends like we used to, and can severely restrict our independence and sense of self. (This article is electronically protected - Copyright © Associated Counsellors & Psychologists Sydney PTY LTD)

An aging or ill partner: One of the great dilemmas of old age is that people are often forced to look after their sick partners at a time in their lives where their bodies are also aging and tired. Caring for a sick partner when you are elderly yourself can be extremely stressful on an aging body. A common example is the case of caring for a person with Alzheimer’s.  This devastating illness robs the victim of their memories, even if they are otherwise physically relatively healthy.  Having a life partner with this kind of horrific illness can be a source of mental anguish and physical exhaustion for the partner who does not have the illness, but emotionally still feels connected to a person they love and care for deeply.

Death of a long-time partner: As we get older, companionship becomes more and more important to us.  For couples who have been life partners for many years, the loss of a loved one can become a triggering event for them to become extremely depressed.  Suddenly, the person you shared the most of your life with, the person you shared your hopes and dreams with and who you had so many life experiences with is gone.  In addition to obvious feelings of sadness and grief, the death of a partner in old age might herald the first time in years that an elderly person has lived alone, without companionship, and this can be an extremely daunting and lonely prospect for an aging person.

Moving into Supported Living: A very significant and emotionally charged life change common to many elderly people is the move from independent living into a Retirement Village or Nursing Home. Whilst some level of supported living might be necessary and beneficial for an elderly person, it is also signals a substantial loss of independence for that person or at least the perception of lost independence. Often, it also means leaving a long-term family home, where the person may have lived with their partner and children for many many years. This can be a huge change for an elderly person to accept and adapt to.

All these are examples of significant changes which commonly affect people’s lives as they age. They way in which people are equipped to accept and adapt to these changes will vary, and for some, the changes can be overwhelming. For these people, the onset of clinical depression during old age is a real threat.

What are the Symptoms of Depression in the Elderly?

The symptoms of depression are a combination of several different behaviours and emotions and are not dissimilar to common depression. The most common symptoms of depression or depressed behaviour are:

  • Feeling down or depressed for most of the day, every day, for a minimum period of two weeks.  This can include feeling sad and empty or aimless.

  • Reduced interest in activities previously enjoyed.  This can include hobbies you used to engage in (bowling, golfing, playing bridge, etc) or socializing with friends.

  • Weight loss or gain without intention.  Changes in appetite often contribute to changes in weight, including eating substantially more than normal or lack of interest in eating and food.

  • Problems with sleep, including sleeping much more than normal or problems going to sleep or staying asleep.  This can include waking up and not being able to go back to sleep, or feeling anxious when trying to go to sleep.

  • Feeling restless and irritable.

  • Unusual fatigue or feeling tired most of the time, although this is not an uncommon symptom of the ageing body.

  • Feeling worthless, feeling unreasonable or inappropriate feelings of guilt; this can happen especially if a life partner has become ill or died.

  • Problems thinking, including problems with concentration or suddenly having problems making decisions or being unusually indecisive (Note: this can be a common symptom of Alzheimer’s Disease or another form of dementia).

  • Thinking too much about death, including feelings and thoughts of hurting yourself or suicide.

A combination of these symptoms is required in order to be diagnosed with depression and the symptoms need to be dire enough that they significantly impair the ability to function and participate in regular life activities. (This article is electronically protected - Copyright © Associated Counsellors & Psychologists Sydney PTY LTD)

How is Depression Amongst the Elderly Treated?

Depression is best and most effectively treated with counselling from a professional counsellor or psychologist, although this is often done in combination with medication, especially in cases where an elderly person is depressed. The purpose of taking antidepressants is that they help with concentration and thinking abilities so that it becomes possible to begin functioning again.

Note that medication can only be prescribed by a medical practitioner (GP or Psychiatrist) and is ideally taken under close monitoring and in conjunction with some kind of counselling. Working with a professional counsellor will help allow you or your loved one identify the reasons for becoming depressed and talk about how life has changed.  Counsellors are compassionate, empathetic listeners who help clients struggling with depression learn how to continue to value their life experiences and memories, while at the same time learning better and healthier coping skills for their current life circumstances.

If I Think I’m Depressed, What Do I Do?

If you believe you, your partner or relative may be having problems with depression or other mood issues, consider contacting us to book a consultation with a qualified counsellor or would like to obtain further advice please contact Associated Counsellors & Psychologists Sydney.

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