Why depression in old age is different, and how to deal with it – in yourself or a loved one
- Age-related illnesses, deaths of friends and family, loneliness: depression is common for older people, especially if they had mental health problems before
- If you suspect someone has depression, speak to them about it and suggest they seek help; expert says ‘it’s better to check with them too often than too seldom’
A pall falls over your life and you ask yourself, “What’s the point of going on?” Where once there was joy is now only emptiness.
Depression is a common mental disorder that affects an estimated five per cent of adults globally, according to the World Health Organization. It’s described as “a leading cause of disability around the world and [one which] contributes greatly to the global burden of disease”.
“Depression isn’t so much a reaction to difficult personal circumstances as it is an independent illness,” says Ulrich Hegerl, professor of psychiatry and psychotherapy at the University of Frankfurt in Germany and chairman of the German Depression Aid Foundation.
Most older people suffering from the mental disorder had depressive phases earlier in their life, notes Hegerl. But depression later in life is different in some ways.
“Your troubles aren’t the same as they were in your youth or middle age,” says Armin Rösl, vice-chairman of the German Depression League (DDL), a support group which helps people with depression and their family members. Loneliness, for example, is a big problem, points out Rösl, who has suffered from depression himself.
What should family members watch for in a loved one to head off development of full-blown depression? Among the possible warning signs are extreme withdrawal, not responding to phone calls and revealing little about themselves. They may also lack the motivation to take care of their appearance, wash themselves and get dressed.
Pronounced cheerlessness is typical as well. If their mood were a piece of music, it would be “in a minor key”, remarks Rösl; they’re usually quiet and “what they say is streaked with sadness”.
“It’s better to check with them too often than too seldom,” Rösl says.
When an antidepressant is prescribed, care must be taken in selecting one that’s right for the patient. “Many older people have other illnesses for which they take medications, which can result in drug interactions,” warns Hegerl.
In addition to medication and psychotherapy, there are things depression sufferers can – and should – do on their own to help themselves. “Simply swallowing medicine and waiting until [the depression] goes away doesn’t work,” Rösl says.
Family members need to understand the nature of their loved one’s illness. It’s often difficult for them to grasp at first that the person can no longer do even the simplest things, notes Hegerl, “but it’s not on purpose or due to self-neglect”.
It’s also important that family members don’t blame themselves for the illness, and that they understand they’re not responsible for restoring the person to sound mental health.