How to Help an Elderly Person with Depression

It is important to understand that depression is NOT a normal part of aging. If they senior quits doing activities they love, have changes in their personality, or is sad for long periods of time, they might be depressed. Get help for them immediately.

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It can be very worrisome if one of your elderly loved ones becomes apathetic, withdrawn, and doesn’t seem to enjoy the same things they used to. Particularly when we’re primary caregivers to a senior, we can become extra observant of any new symptoms or changes in their health and behavior. 

Many seniors can develop depression; however, you should keep in mind that depression is not a normal part of the aging process. So, is your loved one going through a depressive episode, or could it be something else? When should you seek professional help for them? How can you help an elderly person with depression? Read on to find out.

view of a depressed elderly woman from behind

Is it Really Depression?

In order to be able to catch any warning signs early, the first thing you need to do is understand what depression really is.

Many people confuse sadness with depression, but they are very different things. In fact, sadness might not even be the predominant symptom if your loved one is suffering from depression. 

Official Depression Definition

The American Psychiatric Association defines depression as “a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. Fortunately, it is also treatable.

Depression causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function at work and at home.”

Clinical Signs of Depression

For depression to be clinically diagnosed, at least five of the following depression symptoms must be present in the patient for at least two weeks:

  • Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day.
  • Diminished interest or pleasure in almost all activities.
  • Significant weight loss or gain that isn’t attributable to dietary changes.
  • Sleeping too little or too much.
  • Feeling either agitated or slowed down nearly every day.
  • Fatigue.
  • Feeling worthless or guilty nearly every day.
  • Decreased concentration, or feeling indecisive nearly every day.
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide, suicidal ideation or attempts.

In order to make a diagnosis, at least one of the symptoms must be depressed mood or diminished interest/pleasure in most activities. It is also important to note that these symptoms shouldn’t be attributable to another medical condition.

senior woman frowning and looking at the ground

Temporary Sadness vs. Depression

Sadness and depression are two different things. Here are more detailed descriptions and some differences.

Sadness is Often Triggered Suddenly By A Life Event

Sadness is a normal human emotion, and we all feel sad sometimes.

However, when you’re temporarily sad instead of depressed, you’ll still be able to find enjoyment in some things. Maybe it’s spending time with your family, maybe it’s your favorite television show, or maybe it’s that feeling you get when you achieve something new, even if it’s just baking a nice cake.

When you’re sad, for whatever reason, some things will still be able to snap you out of your sad mood and make you feel joy and satisfaction.

Sadness is usually triggered by a traumatic life event. Losing a family member, being diagnosed with a chronic or terminal disease, suffering from an acute illness – such as a stroke or heart attack – moving to a nursing home, among other stressful situations, can make an elderly person become sad for some time.

Also, sadness usually creeps up around the holidays. For many seniors, the events and festivities of a holiday cause a flood of memories that may lead to temporary sadness. Adopting an elderly person for Christmas can really help these folks and keep their minds focused elsewhere.

Remember that older people are often faced with painful situations that can be very difficult to deal with. However, when a senior is sad after a big life change, as opposed to being depressed, their sadness will subside after having time to adjust.

Depression is a Longer Term Medical Condition

Depression is an entirely different monster: it is a medical condition where you or your loved one won’t be able to derive enjoyment or pleasure from any of the things you used to enjoy. It is certainly painful to see one of your family members or friends go through such a trying time.

One of the first things you need to do is identify whether they are going through a temporary period of sadness or if it truly is a case of depression.

However, in the case of depression in older adults, you will find that your elderly relative doesn’t seem to enjoy any of the activities they used to love in the past. Their mood remains sad or mournful for long periods of time. Certain medications can also trigger depressive episodes.

These symptoms are often not associated with any painful life events. Keep an eye out for the signs of depression mentioned above, since they will act as warning signs. These signs will let you know when it’s time to seek professional help.

If you’re wondering how to help an elderly person with depression, the answer will always start with an early diagnosis.

senior man with depressed look on his face

Signs Your Elderly Loved One May Be Depressed

Depression in the elderly is often overlooked. If we don’t know any better, we can assume that the depressed senior has a good reason to be sad. We might think depressed mood is just another part of the aging process. But in reality, depression is a medical condition that can be overcome at any age.

Whether you’re the primary caregiver to a depressed senior, or you only see them once in a while, make sure you keep track of any changes in their mood or personality. Maybe you have noticed that they seem to be more downcast than before, have neglected their personal appearance or hygiene. Maybe they don’t enjoy playing with their grandchildren the same way the used to.

They may sleep all day when they never did that before. If these changes last longer than two weeks –especially if they aren’t tied to any recent painful events-, it might time to ask for help. In a depressed person, recurrent thoughts about death and suicide are particularly worrying and should be a major red flag.

In some cases, depression in the elderly doesn’t cause any sadness at all. Your elderly loved one might simply complain of fatigue, decreased motivation, an inability to concentrate, and even physical symptoms. Constant physical issues such as headaches, gastrointestinal symptoms, or pain can be a sign of depression when they can’t be explained by any other medical condition.

If your loved one is in a nursing home or senior living facility and you notice any symptoms of depression, make sure to notify someone else. You should ideally talk to someone who is in contact with them, such as another family member, nurse, or doctor. This way, you can start to help them as soon as possible.

depressed elderly man sitting on his bed

Tips for Helping a Depressed Senior

After your loved one receives a diagnosis, you will probably be left wondering “How can you help an elderly person with depression?”

1. Make Sure They Feel Safe in Their Surroundings

The first thing you must do is to make sure that your elderly loved one feels comfortable and safe in their surroundings. Talk to them and let them know that you worry about their health and happiness. Reassure them if they feel ashamed about being depressed. Having a warm, loving environment and support network is fundamental to overcoming depression.

2. Keep Them Busy With Activities They Enjoy

There are several simple things you can do in order to help your elderly loved one. Take into consideration the activities they have always enjoyed or have wanted to try for a long time. Help them enroll in a new class or program that is related to one of said activities.

If it is within your possibilities, make some time to spend with them and participating in a favorite hobby together. Gifts will make them feel loved and valued. If this isn’t possible for you, due to time or distance, you can still contact someone else that can help them do this.

3. Encourage Exercise – Especially Outdoors

Exercise is another great option. If the senior’s health condition allows it, make sure they can perform some type of exercise at least a few times a week.

Ideally, they would be able to do this outdoors, which can also provide a mood boost.

4. Make Sure Medications Are Taken Appropriately

If the depressed senior takes any medication, read available information about them. In some cases, depression in the elderly can be triggered or worsened by certain medications. This information will come in handy when talking to a professional.

senior woman meeting with her psychiatrist

When Is it Time for Professional Help?

If you make positive changes to your elderly loved one’s environment and/or routine, and they still don’t improve or even get worse, it might be time to seek professional help.

  • Has your loved one’s condition deteriorated?
  • Do they refuse to eat or groom themselves?
  • Are they getting enough sleep?

Where to Start Getting Help

If you notice any of the signs of depression, make an appointment with their general practitioner first. They will decide if the senior needs to be referred to a specialist.

A senior who develops physical symptoms that can’t be explained by any other medical condition might also be developing depression. Suicidal ideation, plans, or attempts are an extreme warning sign and need immediate intervention.

A mental health specialist, such as a psychiatrist, will be able to decide the best course of action to treat your loved one’s depression.

Treatment Options

Treatment might include different types of therapy, lifestyle changes, and antidepressants. In severe cases, inpatient treatment at a mental health facility might be necessary during a certain amount of time.

It is important to encourage the depressed senior to be consistent with their treatment, lifestyle changes, and therapies.

Support Them in Following Their Treatment and Prescribed Medications

You should also make sure that they don’t stop taking their antidepressants against their doctor’s orders, even if they are feeling better or seem happier.

Antidepressants are probably a big part of why your loved one feels better. They will only relapse into their symptoms if they stop taking them too soon. Any changes in their treatment should always be approved by their doctor.

Summary and Final Thoughts

Depression in the elderly is not uncommon but it shouldn’t be mistaken for a normal part of aging. It is a fact that older people can be faced with many stressful situations, such as the death of their partners, having to move to a senior care facility, or dealing with chronic or terminal illnesses. However, depression is a disease that is just as real and treatable as any other health condition. 

If you suspect your elderly loved one has developed depression, keep an eye out for symptoms and their characteristics. Reach out to others to seek assistance. Remember that sadness can be a symptom of depression but being sad isn’t always the same as being depressed.

Your loved one’s sadness can be linked to a traumatic life event. If they are still capable of enjoying other things, and their symptoms don’t persist for a prolonged period of time, it is possible that they’re dealing with temporary sadness.

There are many ways how can you help an elderly person with depression, so you shouldn’t feel discouraged. Depression can be a scary word and diagnosis to face. But many people experience it at some point in their lives and are capable of overcoming it completely. With time and the right treatment, you’ll find that they can become the same happy person they used to be!

Have you had any experience with a depressed senior you would like to share? How did you help the elderly person with their depression?

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About Scott Grant, ATP, CRTS®

Assistive Technology Professional, Custom Wheelchair Specialist, Medical Equipment Guru, Dad and Grandfather

I am a lucky dad to four awesome daughters and grandfather to three pretty terrific grandkids. When not working as a custom wheelchair specialist at a regional home medical equipment company, I enjoy early morning runs and occasional kayak trips. I am also a self-admitted nerd who loves anything from the 1980's. Learn More

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