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Depression is a common condition among seniors, but it's also one of the most undiagnosed for a lot of reasons. Elders are often reluctant to admit their feelings because of the stigma among their generation; many think of depression as a sign of weakness. Family members and even doctors often dismiss symptoms as something caused by another illness, or a natural part of aging. But depression is not natural, and way too many elders are suffering needlessly when effective treatment is readily available.

What is Depression?

Depression comes in different forms. Major or clinical depression is a feeling of complete hopelessness that can keep a person buried under the covers for days, and uninterested in life for more than a few weeks. Dysthymia is a chronic condition of mild depression that can last for years. Some people suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) caused by a lack of sunlight in the winter months, particularly in the North. Depression can be circumstantial, such as a reaction to the death of a loved one, or it can be ongoing feelings of despair not linked to a particular incident.

What Does Depression Look Like?

  • Persistent sadness
  • Hopelessness
  • Loss of interest in people or activities once enjoyed
  • Sluggishness, fatigue, feeling "flat"
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Feeling guilty, worthless
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Lack of interest in appearance
  • Aches and pains
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

What Causes Depression in Elders?

There are many reasons your aging parent or loved one may be suffering from depression. Our society's preoccupation with youthfulness and an often-dismissive attitude towards its older citizens can take a toll on the mental health of our older generation. Add to that, the fact that with age often comes illness. Elders have to deal with the loss of their friends and family members; they may have to face moving into an assisted living situation. They may feel isolated and lonely. Many medications can cause depression. And of course, genetics play a big role. An individual's risk factor increases if a relative has suffered from depression at any time.

Types of Treatment

The doctor may recommend an antidepressant or talk therapy—or both. Seniors are at a higher risk for negative side effects and drug interactions because they're usually taking several or many medications. Falling is a common side effect for seniors taking antidepressants, so be sure to talk with the doctor and bring a list of all the medications your parent is already taking. Exercise and social activities have also shown to have good results in combination with therapy and/or medication. And here's something you might not have considered: A new pet can provide companionship and brighten up your loved one's days.

Check the Impulse to Say "Cheer Up!"

As tempting as it may be, trying to get your loved one to "snap out of it" or "look on the bright side" and "count your blessings" just won't help. Depression is much more than a simple case of the blues. Gently encourage your parent to seek medical help, and remind them there's no need to suffer when there are effective treatments available. You just might convince them to get the help they need. And then it won't be long before they're, well...cheering up, looking on the bright side and maybe even counting their blessings.