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Dealing With Your Aging Parent's Depression

Discover the best ways to help your parents with depression. Seniorly explores the warning signs and symptoms of elderly depression.

By Marlena del Hierro Updated on Jul 10, 2023
Reviewed by Angelica P. Herrera-Venson · Reviewed on Jan 14, 2023

Depression is a significant issue for seniors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 1% and 5% of seniors in the community experience depression, although rates are much higher for those who are hospitalized or who require home health care. Depression is most common in older adults that have two or more health conditions.  A systematic review of published studies found that being female, having poor self-rated health, cognitive impairment and older age were significant risk factors for depression. In addition, difficulty sleeping, chronic conditions, and mobility impairment were also found in some studies to increase the risk for depression.

Depression can be so much more than just sadness or “having the blues” for an older adult. It is a real medical condition that is treatable just like asthma or high blood pressure.  And, although older adults are at an increased risk of experiencing depression, it is also not a normal part of getting older.  There are treatments, such as medication and therapy, that can help seniors stabilize their emotions and get a new lease on life.

Adult children may be confused or overwhelmed by depression symptoms in a senior. They may not know how to help and may be afraid to ask the senior. Furthermore, depression isn’t easy to understand from the outside, especially if you have never experienced it yourself. Depression can be so much more than just sadness or “having the blues” for an older adult. It is a real medical condition that is treatable just like asthma or high blood pressure.  For an adult child, it can be difficult to understand the unique experiences their aging parent has had during their life and where they should start when trying to help them feel better.  This post offers some helpful tips on how you can best handle your aging adults.

Depression symptoms in older adults

While depression is common in older adults, it is often misdiagnosed or entirely undiagnosed. This is partly because depression is often associated with sadness, but there are many other symptoms. It’s even possible to be depressed without being overtly sad. 

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, many older adults are misdiagnosed or undiagnosed. Some of the more common symptoms of depression in seniors include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Lack of self-care
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, being “slowed down”
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Confusion, hallucinations, and memory problems
  • Loss of appetite and/or unintended weight loss
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, suicide attempts
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment

Many times signs of depression go untreated because the symptoms of depression mimic other medical conditions or health issues. And to further complicate things, depression in older adults may take different forms - such as a major depression or a short-term depressive episode. Many families of the elderly don’t realize that some of the symptoms their loved one might be facing is in fact depression. People often mistake the symptoms of depression as other medical conditions such as:

  • Alzheimer’s dDisease
  • Dementia
  • Cancer
  • Heart dDisease
  • Arthritis
  • Stroke

If your loved one experiences any of these symptoms, seek out medical advice and professional help from their health care providers right away to find out what the best treatment options are.

How to treat depression

If you feel that your loved one is exhibiting any signs and symptoms of depression it is important to both have open and direct conversations about mental health, and to enlist the help of medical and/or mental health professionals. And remember, it’s not uncommon for older adults to feel a certain sense of stigma surrounding mental health, so don’t be alarmed if the conversation feels difficult.

11 ways to deal with your aging parent’s depression

Many factors can contribute to the development of depression, including genetics, circumstances, social isolation, or stressful life events. Depression is a very common mental illness that can have serious impacts on individuals, their family members, and friends. Early recognition of symptoms combined with treatment may help prevent or lessen these consequences.

We understand that this is a tough time for your family, so we have compiled 11 tips to help you deal with the depression that your parents may be experiencing. Here are some ways to help your aging parent deal with depression:

Keep routines going

If you are able to keep a routine schedule of daily activities for your loved one this may be the best thing to help stabilize their mood.  Some seniors can get very upset with change and intense reactions may happen because of this variance in schedule. Having a daily routine can help seniors feel like they are maintaining control over their own life. Be patient and flexible, however, as people with depression may lack the motivation to continue with usual business.  

Maintain connections

Having social interaction is an important thing for a senior’s emotional health so they don’t feel any feelings of isolation or sadness. Using technology can make a huge difference in your loved one’s mood by allowing them to connect with loved ones, family, and friends from the comfort of their own home or even at a senior center. If the senior is very depressed, they may not be able to initiate many social connections, so friends and family members will need to reach out to them instead. 

Encourage exercise

Staying active with physical activity can ward off feelings of sadness and isolation. Taking a daily walk or going out to be social can make a world of difference for someone who is at home and feels isolated from the world around them, not to mention exercise produces more serotonin in the brain and exercise is good for your health in general.  There are many benefits of exercise such as joy, contentment, and well-being.

Check for medication side effects

Some medications may have side effects that mimic depression. Talk to your loved one’s medical team to find out if this is the case and if they have any underlying health problems. If so, then changing medications may be in order to help your parent’s mental health and medical problems.

Stay social

Make sure to call or visit every day, bring the grandkids when you can, or even have their friends over for a visit. Social interactions are an important part of promoting your loved one’s mental health. Don’t let boredom set in as that may make your parents feel like they don’t have any real purpose in life.

Listen to their feelings

If your parents are in a place of despair, sometimes listening to them and their concerns can go a long way. You can become their partner in seeking out the correct medical treatment and you can encourage them along the way to find a healthcare provider and proper treatment.

Create a calming environment

Make sure your loved one has their beloved possessions around them that will help them feel better and more comfortable with their surroundings. In the winter make sure they have enough light and maybe add in a diffuser with a calming scent like lavender, which can elevate their mood.

Give them positive reinforcement

Sometimes when people have depression they think negatively of themselves. Reinforce how much they are loved, appreciated, and how much they mean to you. If your loved one needs more support consider finding support groups or talk therapy, such as psychotherapy to help with their feelings. 

Stay positive

Make sure to keep a positive attitude around your senior loved ones and continue to be their support system.  This helps them not to absorb any needless negativity, stress, or anxiety. Be patient and don't give up on your parents. Sometimes depression can last months, years, or even decades, after it starts. Don’t let yourself get discouraged just because you haven't seen any improvements after six months or a year. Keep trying to get them involved in activities and socializing, just be patient for improvement.

Encourage treatment

If your parents are going to treatment for depression, encourage them to stay the course and recognize all the improvements they are seeing in their lives just by putting in the work for recovery. Continue to encourage them to take their medications, maintain their physical health, and work with their doctors and mental health professionals. 

Be gentle

While the previous strategies are all valuable, it’s also important to be kind and work with your parent’s current abilities and needs. Some people with depression struggle with even basic tasks, like having a shower or leaving the house. Gently encouraging them and celebrating any successes (even small ones) is much more effective than constantly pushing them into uncomfortable situations they aren’t ready for.

written by:
Marlena del Hierro

Marlena del Hierro is Vice President of Partnerships and Seniorly’s Lead Gerontologist. Marlena earned her Master of Arts degree in Gerontology from San Francisco State University and her Bachelor of Arts degree in Human Development from California State University. She also serves in an advisory capacity for Jukebox Health. As Seniorly’s first employee, Marlena is a vocal advocate for evolving the aging paradigm, and is a frequent contributor to public discussions about aging. She has served as a resource for media outlets like WGBH, FOX News, CNBC and the Today Show.

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View other articles written by Marlena

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