Isolation, loss of friends and loved ones are some factors that contribute to depression among seniors, say experts
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Becoming a “grumpy old man” or a “crabby old lady” isn’t a natural part of the aging process.
Aging increases the likelihood for certain risk factors for depression; however, older people can reduce their chances of depression. And those with depression can find relief.
As people grow older, several factors can increase their risk of depression.
Psychiatrist Joseph J. Alessi, who practices in Buffalo, said that the many losses that older people typically experience increase their risk for depression.
“They have losses in relationships, health, activities, and what they can do,” he said. “It’s different than with younger people. When these losses occur, they can last longer.”
He added that depression can seriously affect seniors’ health, can cause insomnia and increased risk of cardiac disease.
Wende Birtch, a licensed mental health counselor and holistic counselor practicing at Mindful Psychotherapy in Williamsville, listed isolation as “a big risk factor” because of the loss of friends and loved ones as their friends die and their adult children and grandchildren live elsewhere.
Seniors may also experience loss of hobbies and employment, untreated pain and decreased independence. These factors would negatively affect people of any age, but are likelier in older adulthood, according to Birtch.
Older people also may experience more directly age-related complications. Birtch said that among people 60 and older, decreasing serotonin levels create higher risk for depression. The brain’s serotonin helps regulate emotions and mood.
Kathleen Calabrese, Ph.D, offers counseling in Buffalo. She encourages seniors to obtain a blood test to check their vitamin D and vitamin B levels.
“Many of the elderly, if not with a geriatrician, don’t realize they’re out of balance with the substances that support a sense of wellbeing,” she said. “Supplements are needed.”
Prescription medication can cause a greater risk of depression if the patient takes two medications contraindicated for each other or at a dose exceeding an elderly person’s ability to metabolize it effectively.
“Their system isn’t the same as the 21-year-old the drug is tested on,” Calabrese said. “The medication issue is critical.”
Addressing environmental, emotional and biological needs can help people with depression.
Wendy Baum, licensed clinical social worker practicing in Buffalo, said that said that talk therapy and medication or a combination of the two prove helpful for most people.
She added that people who are mildly depressed may find relief through lifestyle modification, such as more aerobic exercise, eating better and finding positive ways to spend time. Many derive pleasure from volunteering, too.
Don’t count on a primary care physician to spot depression, especially if the visit is about a different malaise.
Shareen Fox, licensed mental health counselor at Blossom Mental Health Counseling, PLLC in Buffalo, said, “Many just go to their GPs and get blown off. ‘Oh, you’re old. What do you expect?’”
But depression is not a normal part of aging. Fox said that partially because depression is mistakenly considered a weakness, a large number of seniors don’t mention their struggle to their primary care provider or a counselor and attempt self-medication with drugs or alcohol.
A lack of geriatricians and geriatric counselors also leaves depression untreated among the elderly.
“Like any disease, if it’s left untreated, it will get worse,” Fox said.
Look for signs of depression such as persistent sadness, unexplained fatigue, losing interest in activities previously enjoyed, isolation, low self worth, contemplating death or suicide, lack of mental focus, feeling hopeless, anxiety, unexplained body aches, irritability, unexplained changes in weight, sleeping, grooming and eating patterns.