Depression among older adults is more common than ever. And the most significant threat is that many don't seek help.
Depression may be more common as people age, but perhaps the biggest threat to older adults' mental health is that many of them fail to recognize its symptoms and seriousness.
A 2020 poll conducted by GeneSight Mental Health Monitor found that 61% of people ages 65 and older who worry they may have depression don't seek treatment. About one-third believe they can "snap out of it" on their own.
This all-too-common attitude can cause many to unnecessarily suffer from a treatable illness.
"Depression still carries a stigma, especially among older adults, who have trouble admitting they have a problem," says Dr. Caroline Bader, a geriatric psychiatrist with Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital. "But it's a common and treatable problem, and older people should know they are not alone and do not need to suffer in silence."
Facing new life changes
Older adults often resist the reality of depression because they write it off as just another health problem that comes with age, which isn't necessarily true. "It's not a normal part of aging to feel depressed," says Dr. Bader.
While depression affects both genders, older men in particular can be more vulnerable. Today's older men were typically breadwinners for much of their lives, so their energy, purpose, and identity were wrapped up in work.
But now, in retirement, many have lost that sense of self, according to Dr. Bader. "It's a huge change for many men, and they don't know how to fill that space," she says. "This can lead to a sense of purposelessness and hopelessness that often contributes to depression."
The first step toward facing depression is to recognize the symptoms and not ignore them (see "Look for the signs"). Speak with your doctor if any of these apply to you. He or she can offer a diagnosis and prescribe antidepressants if needed. Many people respond well to medication and may prefer this course of treatment.
"Opening up to friends and family also can help you gain perspective on whether depression symptoms have become a problem in your life and you need to seek more help," says Dr. Bader.
Look for the signs
If you experience several of the following most days for at least two weeks, you may have depression and should seek help:
- loss of enjoyment in favorite activities
- persistent sad or "empty" mood
- increased boredom and apathy
- fatigue or loss of energy
- restlessness or irritability
- insomnia or spending too much time in bed
- feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
- trouble concentrating or making decisions
- unintentional weight gain or loss.
There are other ways to address and manage your symptoms. Here are some strategies you can try. "When you recognize depression as something real and treatable, you can begin to improve many aspects of your life," says Dr. Bader.
Make small changes. Adding regular structure to your daily life can help ward off and even treat many common symptoms. "You don't have to make sweeping changes," says Dr. Bader. "Small adjustments can often have a significant impact." For example, make daily exercise a priority (like a 10-minute walk), get involved in your religious community, or volunteer. Even during a pandemic, you can join virtual religious services, or volunteer by making phone calls or partaking in a letter-writing campaign for an organization or charity. "This helps create a greater sense of purpose," says Dr. Bader.
Try mindfulness or meditation. These practices teach you to manage stress that can exacerbate or lead to depression symptoms. Many online instructions and apps show you the basics. Some examples include Calm (www.calm.com), Ten Percent Happier (www.tenpercent.com), and Headspace (www.headspace.com), all of which offer free trials.
Explore online psychotherapy. The pandemic has led to a surge in telehealth, especially online therapy. "Talk therapy can be a positive experience for many and helps address issues that are triggering symptoms," says Dr. Bader. "Plus, this approach can be an option for men who are more reluctant to do in-person therapy." Ask your doctor to recommend a mental health expert, and inquire about online sessions. If the therapist doesn't offer them, ask for names of colleagues who do.
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