While most seniors are happy, content and positive, others need assistance in helping them adjust to life's changes as they get older. It’s not uncommon for people of all ages to experience bouts of sadness but among seniors, depression can be a debilitating and life-threatening condition. Clinical depression is a disorder that affects mood, feelings, behavior and potentially physical health and is diagnosed when sadness is persistent or begins to affect a person’s ability to function normally.
Six million Americans over the age of 65 are struggling with depression. Changes to body and/or mind that often accompany the aging process like social isolation and loneliness, the onset of a serious illness like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer or stroke, the use of certain medications (which can trigger depression or worsen existing symptoms), or the loss of a loved one can all trigger or increase depression.
Of the six million older Americans living with depression, only about 10 percent are receiving treatment. This may be due to physicians and family members mistaking the signs of depression in older adults as normal symptoms of aging instead of a treatable illness.
As the director of psychiatry at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center (HRC), I counsel family members to look for the following signs of depression in their loved ones:
- Agitation or Anxiety
- Persistent feelings of guilt
- Social withdrawal
- Appetite disturbance
- Unexplained weight loss or gain
- Lack of attention to personal care
- Sleep disturbance
- Loss of interest in normally pleasurable activities
- Feelings of discouragement or hopelessness
In cases of clinical depression, I’ve worked with patients to successfully treat their depression in a number of ways, including the use of medications (antidepressants) and/or psychotherapy (also known as talk-therapy). Antidepressant medication should be used under careful supervision of a doctor, as it can cause unwanted side effects.
Maintaining social interactions through activities and time spent with family and friends can be key to warding off serious bouts of depression. Staying busy keeps the mind and body engaged and occupied. Physical activity has also proven to have positive effects on the mental health of my patients.
Utilizing resources is essential in the fight to prevent and treat depression among older adults. In a recent post from The New Old Age, author Paula Span noted working with a team in an office or clinic, known as “‘collaborative care’ practices, in which a trained nurse or psychologist served as ‘depression care manager,’ [and] working with patients to develop treatments and monitor progress,” had a positive outcome for patients who sought treatment in that manner.
To that end, Hebrew Rehabilitation Center has begun a new Psychiatric Support Service, funded in part by a fellowship from The Atlantic Philanthropies, for long-term chronic care patients at Hebrew Rehabilitation Center. The program will provide psychiatric education for HRC's medical staff to ensure compliance with practice guidelines and to track patient response to treatment.