Aging Matters: Depression in the elderly

Like other matters discussed in this column, depression is not limited to the elderly. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that every year, one in 10 adult Americans experiences depression. But one factor cited by the National Institute of Mental Health as contributing to depression among people over 65 is the presence of other illnesses, accompanied by onset of limitations in the ability to function.

Being single late in life is another risk factor, according to NAMI. Sometimes depression originates in grief over the loss of a loved one, but it’s hard to predict whether that will happen or not. For instance, my mother developed severe depression, apparently triggered by loss of first my dad and then her friends. Elderly women are at a greater risk of major depression than elderly men.

But we should remind ourselves that depression is not a “normal” accompaniment of aging. My mother fortunately had medical care that recognized her condition as abnormal. NIMH states that “Depression can and should be treated when it occurs at the same time as other medical illnesses. Untreated depression can delay recovery or worsen the outcome of these other illnesses.”

Depression is treatable, usually combining a medication, or even more than one, with “psychotherapy,” which we can call counseling. We had counseling experiences with a social worker, a psychiatrist, and a psychologist. In my mother’s case, we learned that a particular medication might be effective but only for a limited period of time, and that others were quite ineffective. For the last two years of her life, she took a medication that was dramatically effective — for her.

I will forever be grateful to her physician for pursuing the medication question until we found one that helped my mother. We also learned that the counseling component of treatment was equally variable, and counseling’s effectiveness depended greatly on whether the counselor was able to establish a relationship with Mom.

Getting the problem diagnosed by a medical doctor was essential, and I strongly encourage you to take this route for yourself or a loved one.

As further evidence that depression is not a “normal” part of aging, some elderly people respond completely differently to their losses and challenges. Jim and Linda Henry of Puyallup wrote in the Aging Deliberately newsletter that “Becoming less able with age doesn’t equate to being unhappy. Depending on our personalities, many of us have the resilience to see and feel good about life, despite our frailties.”