Mythbuster! Depression is not a Natural Part of Aging

by Sharon Dornberg-Lee, L.C.S.W. and Joan Richman Ente, L.C.S.W., C.-A.S.W.C.M.

British essayist Charles Lamb once observed “we grow gray in our spirit before we grow gray in our hair.” In essence, he was saying that just as day becomes night, growing older surely means growing weary, hopeless, and despondent...right? Wrong!

Q. Is it natural to experience depression as we age?

There is a common misconception that older adults are more likely to be depressed than their younger peers; in fact the opposite is true. Depression is less prevalent among older adults, ranging from 1 to 5% of the population*. However, the rate of depression does rise among those with serious health problems and those living in institutional settings**. Depression is not a sign of weakness and it is not a normal response to getting older. It is a medical condition, like high blood pressure or diabetes, and it can and should be treated.

Q. What causes depression among older adults?

Some of the difficult changes and adjustments of the later years can certainly contribute. After the loss of a spouse or friend, one’s independence or career, grief is normal and helps in the healing process—up to a point. When grief over a loss becomes unrelenting or disabling, depression may be in play. How can you tell if an older loved one is depressed—or recognize those symptoms in yourself ? Red flags include

  • Loss of interest in hobbies or other pleasurable pastimes.
  • Social withdrawal and isolation.
  • Noticeable weight gain OR weight loss, OR a marked change in appetite.
  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Loss of self-esteem.
  • Increased use of  alcohol or drugs.
  • Fixation on death; suicidal thoughts or statements.

Older adults who deny feeling depressed may exhibit symptoms in disguised ways:

  • Preoccupation with aches and pains, both real and imagined.
  • Feelings of hopelessness/helplessness.
  • Irritability/crankiness.
  • Lack of interest in personal care.
  • Lack of concentration/uncharacteristic forgetfulness.

Q. What should you do if an older family member or friend is displaying any symptoms of depression?

Open, caring communication is the best place to start. Speak simply and honestly about the changes you are seeing. If you find your family member willing to talk, then listen actively, without judgment. Make clear that it is not “wrong” to feel bad, but offer hope and a plan for helping.

The first step should be a visit to one’s doctor to rule out medical reasons for one’s symptoms. Offer to assist in making an appointment and going along for support.

Remember that a first conversation is just a beginning; hopelessness and a lack of motivation to follow through are symptomatic of depression. Talk show host Dick Cavett described his depression this way: “When you’ve got it, if there were a magic wand across the room that would make you happy and give you everything you want—it would be too much trouble to cross the room and pick it up.” Express your concern as many times and as long as it takes to connect, remaining supportive and nonjudgmental. If there is any concern about your loved one being suicidal, however, seek help without delay.

Q. What are some options for treating depression?

Treatments include “talk therapy” (counseling with a trained therapist) and/or medication. Medicare covers approximately 80% of the cost of talk therapy; secondary insurance may cover the balance.

CJE SeniorLife has been at the forefront of recognizing the mental health needs of older adults. We have offered counseling services since our inception in 1971—and we remain here to help. Our seasoned clinical social workers most often see clients at our Rogers Park and Deerfield locations. Arrangements can also be made for homebound individuals to receive services in their homes.

The good news about depression is that it is eminently treatable. According to experts, most major depressive episodes are resolved within 6 months with appropriate treatment. No one, whether they are 18 or 80, has to live with depression as a life sentence. Life— however long we are blessed to have it—is meant to be lived!

If you or someone you know are experiencing depression, please call 773.508.1000 and ask for Counseling Services, or visit cje.net/support-services/counseling. Our geriatric care management team, Your Eldercare Consultants, can also coordinate care for depression and is an excellent resource for exploring options during life’s transitions.

*Hasin, Goodwin, Stinson & Grant, 2005
**Blazer, 2003; Djernes, 2006

For more information about Your Eldercare Consultants, visit our website www.YourEldercareConsultants.com(link is external)

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of LIFE, CJE SeniorLife's quarterly magazine.