Frequently Asked Questions

How can I detect signs of depression in the elderly?

There are many reasons why depression in older people is often hard to detect. As a person ages, the signs of depression are much more varied than at younger ages. It can appear as increased tiredness or grumpiness. Sometimes older people who are depressed lose interest in eating and lose weight.

Confusion or attention problems caused by depression can sometimes look like Alzheimer’s disease or other brain disorders. Mood changes and signs of depression can be caused by medicines older people may take for arthritis, high blood pressure or heart disease.

Here is a list of the most common signs of depression. If you have several of these, and they last for more than two weeks, see a doctor.

  • Persistent sad, anxious or “empty” mood
  • Loss of satisfaction with life
  • Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
  • Diminished capacity to give or receive affection
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
  • Physical aches and pains (including headaches and lower back pain)
  • Excessive crying
  • Decreased energy, fatigue or slowed thinking
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
  • Insomnia, early-morning awakening or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight loss or overeating and weight gain
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, suicide attempts
  • Restlessness, irritability or hyperactivity
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders and chronic pain

If you are a family member, friend or healthcare provider of an older person, watch carefully for clues of depression. Don’t ignore the warning signs. If left untreated, serious depression can lead to suicide.

The first step is to accept that you or your family member needs help. You may not be comfortable with the subject of depression. Or you might feel that asking for help is a sign of weakness. You might be like many older people, their relatives or friends, who believe that a depressed person can quickly “snap out of it” or that some people are too old to be helped. This is wrong.

A healthcare provider can help. Once you decide to get medical advice, start with your family doctor. The doctor should check to see if your depression could be caused by a health problem or a medicine you are taking. After a complete exam, your doctor may suggest you talk to a mental health worker.

Are you the relative or friend of a depressed older person who won’t go to a doctor for treatment? Try explaining how treatment may help the person feel better. In some cases, when a depressed person can’t or won’t go to the doctor’s office, the doctor or mental health expert can start by making a phone call. A phone call can’t take the place of the personal contact needed for a complete medical checkup, but it might encourage the person to go for treatment.

Remember, with treatment, most people will find positive thoughts gradually replacing negative thoughts. Expect your mood to improve slowly. Feeling
better takes time. But it can happen.

For more information and guidance on behavioral health care, please call our Respond program at 1-800-366-1132.