Don’t be too quick to dismiss the sudden moodiness, withdrawal or incessant complaints about aches and pains from your elderly parents. These may be signs of elderly depression, a serious medical condition which can be prevented and treated.
“When one reaches late adulthood (65 years and above), one will inevitably experience physical decline and some form of loss – loss of health, spouse, family members or loss of income and independence,” says Dr Kaysar Mamun, Head and Senior Consultant at the Department of Geriatric Medicine, Singapore General Hospital.
In Singapore, depression strikes about six per cent of the elderly population aged 65 and above.
If depression is left untreated, it can adversely affect the elderly person’s ability to recover from serious medical conditions such as cancer and heart disease, adds Dr Mamun. According to a 2010 report published in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, depression worsens the outlook for elderly patients with heart failure.
Signs of elderly depression
Be alert for these signs of depression in yourself, your elderly parents or relatives:
- Feeling persistently sad, moody and down
- Becoming increasingly withdrawn (e.g. avoiding family and friends)
- Sudden change in eating habits (either eating too little or a lot)
- Change in sleeping habits (insomnia or the opposite, sleeping a lot more than usual)
- Poor concentration
- Always feeling tired
- Having negative feelings such as excessive guilt, worthlessness and helplessness
- Expressing suicidal thoughts
Causes of elderly depression
There are many causes of elderly depression. Being diagnosed with a serious medical illness such as cancer or having recently suffered from a disability such as stroke and heart attack can bring about depression.
Medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease, blood pressure and high cholesterol can also trigger or worsen depression.
- Loss of social support systems such as loss of spouse and close family members (bereavement), and children leaving home
- Social isolation or loneliness
- Being single, widowed or divorced
Treatment options for elderly depression
Depression is often treated with antidepressants. Doctors usually select the lowest effective dose of an antidepressant medication which is most suitable for a particular patient.
Those patients who do not respond to antidepressant therapy or can not tolerate these medications or those at high risk of suicide, may benefit from other forms of treatment like electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).Non-medical approaches to treat depression include counselling and psychotherapy.
Tips to cope with elderly depression
- Widen social support structure
Join a senior citizens’ group or participate in organised senior activities. It can help to alleviate feelings of isolation.
- Start exercising
Engage in gentle physical exercises to relieve symptoms of depression (e.g. walking, yoga, tai chi). Physical activity releases endorphins which are feel-good chemicals produced by the brain. Group exercise programs prevent social isolation, improve depressed mood and prevent functional decline.
- Talk to someone
Pick up the phone and have a chat with a friend or see a counsellor. By connecting with others, the elderly are less likely to feel lonely and isolated.
- Take care of a pet
A pet can provide great companionship for the elderly.
- Get out of the house
A dose of sunshine can brighten the mood of an elderly person suffering from depression. Suggest outings or let natural light into the house.
“Do not ignore changes in mood or behaviour in your elderly parents. Watch out for signs of depression and don’t hesitate to get help. If you’re a senior, do let your doctor know about your emotional health,” says Dr Mamun.