Depression is not a normal part of growing older

(Way Stations: Staying on Track in Older Adulthood series columnists are Jim Kuemmerle and Nicole Hartog, shown above.)

Depression is a diagnosable and treatable medical condition, not a normal part of aging. However older adults are at an increased risk for experiencing depression. Depression is not just having “the blues” or the emotions we feel when grieving the loss of a loved one. It is a treatable medical condition, like diabetes or hypertension.

How is depression different for older adults?

Older adults are at increased risk. We know that about 80 percent of older adults have at least one chronic health condition, and 50 percent have two or more. Depression is more common in people who also have other illnesses (such as heart disease or cancer) or whose functioning becomes limited.

Older adults are often misdiagnosed and undertreated. Healthcare providers may mistake an older adults’ symptoms of depression as just a natural reaction to illness or the life changes that may occur as we age, and therefore not see the depression as something to be treated. Older adults themselves often share this belief and do not seek help because they don’t understand that they could feel better with appropriate treatment.

Special concerns for older adults

Of course, some older adults do develop clinical depression. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, the following characteristics or conditions may put older adults at a higher risk for depression:

  • Being female
  • Having a chronic illness
  • Having a disability
  • Sleeping poorly
  • Feeling lonely or socially isolated
  • Having a personal or family history of depression
  • Using certain medications
  • Having a brain disease

A number of medical and neurological conditions have high rates of depression associated with them, including stroke, cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

Missed diagnosis

Depression in older adults is often not diagnosed. That's because of stereotypical beliefs among family members, caregivers and even healthcare providers that older adults are depressed in general. Older adults may hide their depression by complaining about a physical problem. This makes it harder to diagnose.

Common signs of depression include:

  • Sleep problems, including too little or too much sleep, or getting up earlier than desired
  • Less pleasure and interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Less energy or focus
  • Increase or decrease in appetite
  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Self-destructive and suicidal behavior

Statistics

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the highest suicide rate (20.2) was among adults between 45 and 54 years of age. The second highest rate (20.1) occurred in those 85 years or older. . Of every 100,000 people age 75 and older, 16.3 died by suicide. This figure is higher than the national average of 11.3 suicides per 100,000 people. Non-Hispanic white men older than 85 have the highest suicide rates, 55 per 100,000 people. Many of these men visited their healthcare provider in the last month

If you see signs of depression in yourself, a friend, or a family member, don't wait until it becomes severe. Please reach out for assistance. Remember the Behavioral Health Urgent Care (BHUC) center, 2551 W. 84th Ave., in Westminster is open 24 hours. And to learn more about Community Reach Center, a nonprofit mental health center with numerous outpatient offices in north metro Denver, visit www.communityreachcenter.org or call 303-853-3500. Also visit the website for information about Mental Health First Aid courses for adults.

 

We would like to thank Wellness and Care Coordinator Nicole Hartog and Program Manager James Kuemmerle with the Senior Reach program at Community Reach Center for their insights. It is important for people experiencing mental health conditions and their loved ones to know that mental illness is treatable, and there is no shame in seeking assistance. If you have any questions about where to turn for help for older adults, please reach out to the Senior Reach team at Community Reach Center at 303-853-3657. We provide treatment for depression and trauma, as well as many other mental disorders. Community Reach Center provides comprehensive behavioral health services for all ages at locations in Thornton, Westminster, Northglenn, Commerce City, Brighton and Broomfield.