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Topics > Healthy Outlook > Guard Against Depression in Elderly

Guard Against Depression in Elderly

Published by Contra Costa Times

Posted on Wed., January 14, 2009
By Cesar B. Court

FOR MANY, SAVING financially is he most important part of planning for retirement, but it is just as important to plan ways to stay physically and mentally healthy, or depression may turn your golden years into misery.

Many who enter retirement are not prepared for some of the changes retirement often brings: increased time spent alone, lack of structure, and feeling unproductive, unneeded and lonely.

We often don´t realize during our work lives how much of our identity and self-esteem come from our work and career. The newly (and long) retired often need frequent visits with family, friends and social activities to prevent developing feelings of emptiness and isolation, which can lead to depression.

About 65 percent of older adults have some form of depression, and adult men over age 84 have the highest incidence of suicide in the state. A quarter of suicides occur among the elderly, compared with less than 1 percent in the general population. The elderly in hospitals and nursing homes are at especially high risk.

Depression is not simply feeling temporarily down or gloomy and it is not a normal part of aging. Depression is a treatable mental illness in which a person feels persistently "down," "pessimistic" or "hopeless" for weeks at a time.

Symptoms may include:

  • Loneliness and isolation: decreased participation in social activities
  • Increased agitation or irritability often expressed as frequent crying over relatively unimportant problems
  • Reduced sense of purpose: a lack of motivation and loss of interest in hobbies
  • Weight change: rapid increase or loss of weight
  • Change in sleep: either insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Suicidal thoughts or plans: don´t dismiss this as "just talk."

Once these symptoms begin to develop, a person may begin to shut others out of his or her life. This increases isolation and the negative spiral downward, and can lead to feelings of despair and suicide.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates as many as 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a treatable mental illness or substance abuse disorder; most of these deaths are preventable. Historically, because of the stigma, depression in older adults has been underrecognized and undertreated.

Early diagnosis and intervention have a significant positive impact when treating depression, thus it is important to receive a "mental health screening" as early as possible when symptoms become evident.

If you suspect depression in an elderly person you know and love, what can you do?

  • Suggest that he or she see his or her doctor. If the person refuses, you might call their doctor´s office to tell them of the problem you suspect. The doctor might be willing to call the patient to suggest an appointment during which they could discuss the possibility of depression.
  • Try to get the person out of the house, both to get some exercise and to interact with others (both can help depression)
  • Faith groups and senior centers can play a beneficial role.

Contra Costa Health Services will offer depression screenings in the Ambulatory Care clinics for those individuals 60 and older starting in the spring. For advice now, and to learn about the screenings, call 925-957-5105.

Court is the program manager of Older Adult Mental Health for Contra Costa Mental Health.

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