As we move into the holiday season, it is important to remember our elder population, who may be struggling to get through the holidays due to grieving the loss of loved ones. Many have lost most, if not all of their family members, often including their children.
I want to focus this article on depression in the elder population, as it is estimated to be overlooked in nearly 40 percent of cases.
In those cases where it is recognized, it is often discounted and/or attributed to a life circumstance. This is particularly disturbing because the consequences of ignoring or failing to treat clinical depression can have a tremendous impact on overall health, with associated declines in immune function and increased incidence of health complications.
In someone whose health already is compromised, depression can cause further difficulties.
In the elderly, it often is confused for Alzheimer's Disease, leading to further treatments that may be unnecessary.
When considering the reaction to grief, a very common life stressor, there is evidence of increased incidence of health conditions and death in the year following the loss of a close loved one.
Unfortunately, with increased age, the likelihood of losing a loved one grows.
When someone reaches their late 80s, there is a good chance that they have lost their spouse, siblings, friends, or even their children. The life that they knew a few decades earlier is just a faint memory, as they often find themselves alone and, with declines in physical and sensory function (i.e., vision, hearing), struggling to find fulfilling activities to fill their time.
Although aging does bring some of these negative consequences, it should be noted that aging is not associated with an increased incidence of depression and depression should not be assumed to be a normal part of aging.
Symptoms of depression include:
Markedly diminished interest in activities
Insomnia or hypersomnia (the need for less or more sleep)
Fatigue or loss of energy
Social withdrawal and personality changes also are not uncommon. One suddenly may become more passive or irritable.
In addition to these symptoms, depression in the elderly also can show up as declines in cognitive functioning (e.g., memory), confusion, and/or the appearance that Alzheimer's Disease is starting. Cognitive difficulties associated solely with depression are called "pseudodementia" and can be fully reversible with treatment.
If you suspect that you or your loved one could have depression it is important to discuss the symptoms with a doctor, who may want to run some tests to rule out a medical cause for the symptoms.
Providing understanding and patience with an elderly loved one can go a long way at helping them feel better.
Additional support and involvement also can help them feel more accepted and less lonely, especially during the holidays which can be more troubling. The good news is that depression is fully treatable with medication and psychotherapy and there is no reason to go on suffering needlessly.
For more information, visit www.lycominghealthyliving.com.
Seiler is a licensed psychologist and neuropsychologist and sees clients through Associates in Neuropsychology and Collaborative Healthcare, PC.