How you can HELP Elderly with Depression & Make a Difference!

When depression occurs in elderly people, it is known as geriatric depression and might manifest differently as compared to younger people. However, it is important to keep in mind that geriatric depression is not a typical aging aspect. Most elderly people tend to have what is known as subsyndromal depression, which almost always never meets the criteria for full-blown depression. When an elderly person suffers from depression, it can be quite daunting to figure out how to help them. Luckily, we have come up with a guide that details the causes, risk factors, and treatment options for geriatric depression.

Risk Factors for Elderly Depression

Like many other medical conditions that occur in elderly people, the possibility of getting geriatric depression varies from one person to another. Here are some age-related factors [1] that can increase the risk of an older adult becoming depressed.

  • Bereavements: When a senior has recently lost a friend, family member, or pet, the loss can lead to geriatric depression.
  • Fear and anxiety: This might include a fear of getting sick, dying, lacking money, becoming disabled, or losing cognitive function. An anxiety buildup is a risk factor for depression among seniors.
  • A declined sense of purpose: Age comes with numerous limitations touching on a person’s physical abilities. This, in turn, can affect the senior’s self-confidence, status, and identity, resulting in depression.
  • Isolation and loneliness: Decreased mobility, living alone, reduced social circles, and relocation are all factors that can cause feelings of loneliness and isolation in older adults, leading to depression.
  • Underlying health conditions: Surgery, cognitive decline, severe pain, and disability can all contribute to depression.

Here are some other risk factors of geriatric depression.

  • Being unmarried, widowed, or divorced
  • Certain drugs or combination of drugs
  • Dependence
  • Family history of geriatric depression
  • Lack of a supportive social network
  • History of suicide attempts
  • History of depression in younger years
  • Stressful life events
  • Substance abuse

Signs and Symptoms of Depression in Seniors

The symptoms of geriatric depression can vary significantly from those of depression in other ages. Some of the signs and symptoms can be quite enervating, at times even life-threatening. Here are the different behavioral, cognitive, physical, and psychosocial signs of geriatric depression [2].

Psychosocial Changes

  • Agitation
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Feeling sad
  • Inappropriate feelings of guilt
  • Increased anxiety
  • Increased irritability

Behavioral Changes

  • Decreased ability to care for self
  • Extreme fearfulness
  • Pacing or fidgeting
  • Preferring to be left alone
  • Social withdrawal from gatherings
  • Withdrawal from once-pleasurable activities

Cognitive Changes

  • Decreased ability to think
  • Memory loss
  • Indecisiveness
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Physical Changes

  • Changes in the function and structure of the brain
  • Fatigue or a significant decline in energy
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Multiple diffuse symptoms
  • Physical pain without any apparent reason
  • Significant loss or increase in weight or appetite

Depression Treatment for the Elderly

If you are taking care of an elderly person with geriatric depression, here are some of the treatment options [3] available to them.


Psychotherapy can be quite effective in treating mild cases of geriatric depression. It can also be used in cases where depression comes from stressful life changes such as retirement, bereavement, or relocation. When combined with medication, psychotherapy can also be helpful for seniors with severe geriatric depression.

Psychotherapy is meant to modify negative behavior and thoughts by correcting ingrained patterns. The senior is taught to recognize self-critical, distorted thoughts and transform them into positive ones. This way, the older adult can cope with problems in a better manner and avoid harmful thoughts. A variant of this treatment option known as interpersonal therapy helps one identify and practice coping mechanisms for recurrent conflicts.

Electroconvulsive Therapy

Commonly known as ECT, this treatment option [4] is open for people on whom antidepressants might not work. Some seniors might have problems with depression medications due to their side effects, memory loss, or difficulties following the medicine regime. Older adults are also far more likely to have complications related to taking antidepressants. These issues make ECT an alluring option to consider for seniors with geriatric depression.

Additionally, Electroconvulsive Therapy can be safely used on seniors with implanted defibrillators and cardiac pacemakers. The process itself involves running a controlled electric current through the patient’s brain. The current affects brain activity, relieving psychotic and depressive symptoms.

Medication Options

In the absence of the two treatment options mentioned above, one may consider antidepressant medication. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) suggests that elderly patients begin with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) due to their significantly fewer side effects than other depression medications.

However, make sure to consult your doctor before taking any antidepressants since some might have significant side effects or be incompatible with other drugs.

How to Help a Depressed Parent

Here are several tips to keep in mind when taking care of a person with geriatric depression.

Solve Sleep-related Problems

Some seniors who live by themselves are easily prone to sleeping problems that may contribute to depressions. If you are taking care of such a person, ensure that they follow a regular sleeping schedule. If the senior suffers from a sleep disorder or sundowning, keep them engaged and ensure they have all the necessary medication.

Give the Senior a Sense of Purpose

A senior who feels he/she lacks a sense of purpose is susceptible to geriatric depression. Encourage the senior to take up a simple hobby such as knitting or gardening depending on their muscle strength. You can also encourage the older adult to take up a social activity such as yoga, playing bridge or cards, or volunteering.

Encourage the Senior to Interact with Others

Encourage the elderly person to visit family members, friends, or former work colleagues. By taking part in social gatherings, the person can improve their emotional, mental, and physical health and significantly reduce the chances of geriatric depression.

Keep the Person Physically Active

Regular physical activity can be quite beneficial in preventing depression in older adults. Low-intensity physical activity is important to keep loneliness, boredom, and brooding at bay. Encouraging activities such as walking, leg raises, jogging, and other senior-friendly exercises can keep a person in excellent mental, emotional, and physical shape. If possible, encourage the senior to participate in group exercises such as tai chi, yoga, or low-impact aerobics.

Ensure the Person Has a Healthy Diet

Dealing with geriatric depression can be significantly easier if you know what foods to serve the elderly person. It is recommended that seniors with the condition consume fiber-rich foods such as vegetables and fruits. The diet should also have lean protein and whole grains. Minimize the senior’s consumption of unhealthy fats, sugar, and starch.

Allocate the Person a Chore

Entrusting a senior with responsibility minimizes the time they can potentially spend wallowing in negative thoughts. For example, you could have the senior walk the family dog every evening or give them some other low-intensity chore. Besides keeping the person active, it also shows them that they are useful and can contribute to the family or society. Additionally, you could assign the senior an indoor plant to take care of.

Never Forget to Show the Person Love

Remember the popular saying, ‘love makes the world go round?’ Well, constant love can keep geriatric depression at bay. It is important to show the older adult that you need them, love them, and care for them. These expressions of love can be in the form of words or affectionate actions such as regular hugs.

Seek Help is Necessary

If the older adult shows some of the symptoms mentioned earlier in this article, it is important to seek professional help. You might mistake geriatric depressions for signs of normal aging when instead, the senior needs medical care. Your doctor might recommend medications, ECT, or psychotherapy for the elderly person.

Be Keen on the Medication

If the older adult you are taking care of is taking antidepressants, ensure they take the meds at the required time. Take it upon you to ensure they take the correct dosage and make the necessary dietary adjustments. You can take periodic looks at the medicine cabinet for signs of skipped doses or overdose.

Home Care is an Option Too

If the senior is living by themselves, send someone over to check on them and help with daily chores. You can also consider having the senior over at your place to live with you. This will prevent several problems that might eventually have led to geriatric depression.


Geriatric depression can affect any senior due to the numerous risk factors involved. If this happens, the senior and their loved ones should not have to suffer the effects. The treatment options outlined above can alleviate the conditions and even possibly eliminate it. The care tips will also go a long way in helping a depressed senior.


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