While depression is a disease that effects all ages, a higher percentage of depressed people are in the elderly age range of 65+ years. The possible social and environmental causes are there: losing a long-term partner, recent physical disabilities, moving out of a family home, etc. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), depression in elderly people often is mistaken for other physical ailments and thus is not diagnosed. In addition, the people themselves won’t admit they are depressed or perhaps don’t realize it.
The first step then is to recognize when you or one of your friends or family members is suffering from depression. Here are some of the possible symptoms in older persons: memory loss, confusion, delusions (fixed false beliefs), irritability, vague complaints of pain, lack of sleep, social withdrawl and demanding behavior. While everyone experiences some of these problems from time to time, the depressed person will have a number of them and for long periods of time. It is one thing to grieve the loss of a partner or friend but most people recover eventually and go on with their lives. Not so the depressed person.
The difficult issue is that the depressed person often will not admit it or even recognize it.
Also, many older persons think that depression is a character flaw and are worried about being made fun of or of being humiliated. They may blame themselves for their illness and are too ashamed to get help. Others worry that treatment would be too costly. Yet research has also shown that treatment is effective and in fact changes the brain when it works.
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Recovering from Depression
What then can be done to alleviate this often debilitating problem? There is medication that can help, especially if the person is otherwise in good health, such as anti-depressants prescribed by a physician. However, taking pills requires regular doses, difficult for forgetful people. The old treatment was electroshock (ECT), a rather extreme solution. Something new that seems to work is called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) which has been cleared by the FDA for the treatment of mild depression.
I would like to suggest alternative remedies such as dietary change and social support from church or other social groups would also be beneficial. Just as with treating alcoholism or drug addiction, the outcome is going to be stronger with a combination of methods. The difficulty here is that the person with depression must participate in treatment. The very nature of depression creates barriers to recovery. I suspect we have not gotten to the physiological basis of depression yet – a hormonal change? a chemical imbalance? a deficiency of some vitamin or mineral? More research needs to be done here. Perhaps it is sufficient to say that people can and do recover. The main thing is to recognize it and then to get help.