Depression in the Elderly

As we grow older, lifestyle changes and personal losses can easily make us feel sad and depressed. Depression is not considered a normal part of aging, but the University of Southern Maine professor Nancy Richeson, Ph.D., says for many reasons, depression in the elderly is common.

“As people age, there are lots of losses and lots of health problems that cause them to feel depressed,” she explains. “Chronic health problems can also cause pain. For some people, as they transition into older age and retire, there may be a different sense of purpose that they must work out. There may be issues of grief because of death. Just trying to find new meaning and purpose can sometimes cause people to slip into depression.”

Signs of depression are often similar to those experienced by younger people, but one — complaining a lot about aches and pains — seems to be more pronounced in older people.

Signs of depression in elderly people

  • Unexplained aches and pains or gastrointestinal problems
  • Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
  • Anxiety or excessive worrying
  • Lack of motivation and energy
  • Weight changes
  • Pacing and fidgeting
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Withdrawal from regular social activities
  • Memory problems
  • Irritability
  • Neglect of personal care
  • Unusually slow movement or speech

A Closer Look at Things That Can Cause Depression In Elderly People

Medical conditions

An illness, medical condition, or chronic disease, especially one that causes chronic pain or disability or is life-threatening, can cause depression or make symptoms already present worse.

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Dementia, such as with Alzheimer’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Thyroid disorders


As we learned in an earlier post on the Advantage Home Care blog, older adults can be more sensitive to medications because as we age our bodies metabolize and process drugs less efficiently. Certain medications can cause depression or make symptoms already present worse.

  • Beta-blockers, e.g., Lopressor, Inderal
  • Blood pressure medications
  • Calcium channel blockers used to treat high blood pressure, congestive heart failure
  • Estrogens, e.g., Premarin, Prempro
  • High cholesterol drugs, e.g., Zocor, Mevacor, Lipitor
  • Opioids, e.g., Demerol, Percodan, OcyContin
  • Parlodel, a Parkinson’s disease medication
  • Steroids, e.g., hydrocortisone, prednisone, Flonase, and Nasacort
  • Tranquilizers, e.g., valium, Xanax


The death of a spouse or partner, a family member, a long-time friend, or a beloved pet can cause people to grieve or feel sad for a long time. Those feelings are normal, and people of any age are usually resilient and able to cope and move on with their lives. With depression, sadness is constant and unrelenting. It can be especially difficult for an older person who may not only experience several losses but also worries about his/her own death.

Loss of purpose

“You retire and your identity isn’t focused around your job anymore,” says Dr. Richeson. “It has to be focused on something else. We need to look at what gives our lives meaning and purpose. These are questions we have to ask ourselves.”

Loss of independence

Oftentimes, the hardest blow to a person’s independence is not being able to drive anymore. Even when family and friends would be more than willing to help out, many older people don’t feel comfortable asking. They are at risk of becoming isolated, lonely, and depressed.

How you can help

Whatever might be causing depression in an elderly person, it is important to recognize and treat it because it can lead to more health problems or even suicide, which is far more common in elderly people than you might think.

  • Pay attention to any signs, no matter how subtle or even if the person denies feeling depressed.
  • Stay connected and supportive. Invite the person for a walk in the sunshine, share a healthy meal, offer to help with transportation. The key is to help him/her stay engaged.
  • Depression is a medical condition that can be treated. It’s important to get a medical evaluation to determine what is causing the depression and the best way to treat it.

“Depression should not be considered a weakness,” stresses Dr. Richeson, whose expertise is in developing recreational therapy interventions for use in the care of older adults. “Sometimes people just need a little bit of help. Maybe it’s some support, maybe it’s some new interests or the development of more coping skills. It’s also learning how to reach out to ask for help, so there are a lot of things people can do. It takes some work on their part too. Many people don’t even realize they are depressed; they often just think it’s being old. ‘I have this issue or I have this pain,’ so they just think depression is normal as well.”

How Advantage Home Care can help

At Advantage Home Care we understand that social interaction and help with tasks that have become difficult are especially important for seniors who are often alone or isolated. Our caregivers are committed to providing emotional well being, happiness, caring companionship, and meaning to the lives of our clients.

  • Stimulation of meaningful conversation on relevant topics to the client.
  • Companionship during meals.
  • Participation in activities formerly enjoyed by the client but no longer possible without assistance, such as gardening, sewing, cooking, painting or reading.
  • Scheduling appointments and communicating with medical providers or personal care providers such as hairstylists.
  • Supervision or monitoring of home repair or installation professionals.

The most important thing any of us can do says Dr. Richeson, is to not accept the notion that depression is just part of growing old. Yes, depressing things happen as we age, but people are much more able to cope and adapt when they get appropriate intervention, treatment, and lots of love and support.

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