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How to Help the Elderly Deal with Depression

written by: Carma Haley Shoemaker • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 1/12/2011

Depression affects approximately 6 million Americans age 65 and older, more than any other age group. However, they are least likely to seek or receive treatment. This article highlights ways to treat and alleviate depression in the elderly.

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    Depression in the Elderly

    According to the Mental Health Foundation, 20 percent of those who continue to live in the community suffer from some level of depression. Up to 40 percent of residents in long-term care facilities are depressed. The elderly are more likely to suffer from medical illnesses, disabilities, and existing health problems. This fact coupled with a possible decrease in mobility may result in them not seeking treatment.

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    Causes of Depression in the Elderly

    By the time some people reach the elderly stage of life they will have experienced some form of depression. However, others will not have experienced the symptoms of depression and they will be dismissed. Some factors that can increase the risk of depression in the elderly include:

    Loss of partner/spouse

    Loss of child

    Medication side effects

    Substance abuse

    Chronic and/or severe pain

    Social isolation/Living alone

    Past history of depression and/or suicide attempts

    Distortion of body image due to surgery or injury

    Lack of social network

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    How to Help

    There are many ways to help with depression in the elderly. These include:

    Medicine

    Many medications are available to treat the presence of depression. Antidepressants may take longer to begin working in elderly people than they do in younger. Encouragement may be needed to continue the medication until the desired result is achieved.

    Psychotherapy

    Psychotherapy can be used to help an elderly person overcome specific problems and it can address a broad range of functional, emotional, and social consequences of depression. This treatment method is especially useful for those who cannot take medications due to side effects, contraindications, or drug interactions with other medications. For those who are able to take medications, many doctors will recommend using psychotherapy and antidepressant medications in combination.

    Counseling

    Depression in the elderly can often be treated when the person is offered a place to discuss how they feel and the reasons for their depression. Group or individual counseling are ideal forums.

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    Other Ways to Help

    In many cases, depression may be a result of social isolation or loneliness. Finding a support group, social club, or attending activities for the elderly can help in these cases.

    The Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry reports that elderly women with a vitamin B-12 deficiency are twice as likely to suffer from severe depression as those who don’t. A B-12 level screening can determine if this deficiency is present, and it may be resolved with small changes in diet or the addition of a vitamin supplement.

    One way to help the elderly in long-term care facilities who suffer from depression is to make their room look as similar to their home as possible. This can be accomplished by bringing in their favorite chair, the comforter from their bed, a small end table or dresser from their bedroom, and of course, lots of pictures and knick-knacks for them to set around the room.

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    Resources

    Disabled World. Elderly Depression in Seniors. (February 2007). Retrieved from http://www.disabled-world.com/artman/publish/elderly-depression.shtml January 4, 2011.

    Mayo Clinic. Depression and Aging: Make Sure to Seek Treatment. (September 2008). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/depression-and-aging/MY00259 January 4, 2011.

    National Alliance of Mental Illness. Depression in Older Persons Fact Sheet. (October 2009). Retrieved from http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=By_Illness&template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=7515 January 5, 2011.

    Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 2009; 11(5): 269–270.