Spotting the Signs of Depression in Older Adults

Depression is a serious health condition, affecting more than 1 in 10 Canadians over their lifetime. While depression can impact children and adults alike, it is actually older adults, aged 65+, who are most likely to suffer from depression, which can be exacerbated by multiple medications they may take to manage chronic health conditions.

“The unique challenge with older adults is that they grew up during a time period when mental illness was stigmatized and hidden,” says Natalie Zabolotsky, Social Work Practice Lead at Circle of Care. “It tends to be difficult for most people to acknowledge that they are feeling depressed, so for an older adult, it can feel shameful to do so.”

Adding to that barrier is the fact that older adults don’t necessarily present with the same symptoms often associated with depression. Instead of feeling sad or down, for example, they are much more likely to admit to lacking motivation or energy, or that their body hurts.

Common symptoms of depression in older adults
  • Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Refusal to get dressed or to come to the door
  • Sleeps too much, or too little
  • Eats too much, or too little
  • Has trouble making decisions or plans
  • Complains about physical symptoms that don’t have a cause
  • Expresses feelings of worthlessness
What to do if you suspect your loved one is depressed

It’s difficult to face a family member or close friend who is depressed. Zabolotsky suggests that you simply make yourself available and patiently listen. “You don’t need to fix them,” she says. “That’s not your job. But be there to listen, acknowledge their feelings and offer hope.”

In addition, Zabolotsky suggests:

  • Help your loved one find clinical resources: You can offer to drive them to appointments, and pick up any medication they may need. For assistance finding a mental health specialist, contact the Toronto Seniors Helpline: 416-217-2077, or ConnexOntario.
  • Schedule regular social activities: Circle of Care offers a monthly Let’s Get Together program to help isolated older adults connect with each other, and there are other groups in the community that host seniors’ clubs or themed groups. “Struggling with depression is much harder for people who have lost their sense of purpose in life. To prevent loneliness and isolation, encourage older adults to occupy their time with a hobby such as gardening or painting. You can also talk them into trying volunteer work for a local charity. When an older adult has something to look forward to, that can make a huge difference in their quality of life,” says Zabolotsky.
  • Watch for suicidal behaviour: Seek professional help right away if you suspect that your loved one is considering ending his or her life. If you need help in an emergency or are in crisis, call 911 or contact a distress centre: Toronto Distress Centres: 416 408-4357 or 408-HELP. Here is a list of warning signs and resources, from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
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