Is Grandma Depressed? How To Tell Whether Your Elderly Mother Or Father Needs Therapy Or Medication

by Josh on April 28, 2011

Depression in elderly is quite common.  In fact, it’s estimated that up to 5% could be living with major depression and for those requiring home healthcare or assisted living, the number can be as high as 13.5%1.

Is depression simply a part of aging?
No.  Depressive disorder doesn’t just happen when people age – regardless of what one might think. It is normal for the elderly to experience some sadness and anguish when it comes recognizing their physical limitations, memory loss and seeing long-time friends become ill or even pass away.  However, subsyndromal depression, which effects more than 5 million people, is a form of depression where symptoms don’t quite meet the required diagnostic criteria for being categorized as “depression.”  Unfortunately, many doctors require a given set of symptoms before they will consider treatment – not always the most effective strategy to follow.  Depression at many levels should be treated when symptoms occur, just like other medical illnesses.  When depression is left unaddressed, it can intensify quickly.  It’s a sad fact, but depression is the leading cause of suicide in elderly – and more than 75% of elderly suicides occur within one month of seeing their doctor1.

What symptoms should I look for in my parents or grandparents?
Remember that older people born before the 1960s were brought up in a generation when complaining was not encouraged, so you may find it takes a little skill and questioning to find out what the symptoms are. There are a number of symptoms that can suggest possible depression, some include:

  • Nervousness
  • Uninvolved or uninterested in activities that usually bring pleasure
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Unintentional weight loss or weight gain
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Diminished ability to concentrate and focus
  • Less cheerful
  • Focused on the end of life
  • Headaches and/or stomachaches

While it may seem clear that a parent or grandparent is depressed, it’s critical to seek the advice of trained psychologists or psychiatrists to make an appropriate diagnosis.  Many signs and symptoms of depression can actually be indicators of life-threatening medical conditions that should not be overlooked.

What treatment options are available?
Any time we see our parents age, it’s heartbreaking.  We want to do whatever it takes to offer them relief from pain, sadness or the reality of aging.  Fortunately, there are options.  Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications work well to ease depression and lift spirits.  Furthermore, therapy is a terrific option and many sources are available today where the elderly can see a psychologist over the Internet without having to travel to a doctor’s office. This web-based therapy is often as effective as office-based treatment or more so, and can make therapy available to many seniors who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get it.  Many highly skilled psychologists can offer support and provide treatment alternatives that work – especially when dealing with depression, thoughts of suicide, the loss of a spouse, or other emotional hurdles.

Where do I go for help?
Treatment centers are available all over the country and many have services specifically designed or the elderly.  You can speak with a primary care doctor, a family doctor, a specialist, and counselors or social workers that are usually on staff in hospitals and assisted living facilities.  Ask them for referrals to psychologists who can provide you with the very best options available.  As we know, aging can be a scary realization and elderly can easily slip into depression as a result.  Watch for signs and be proactive in seeking help.


1. National Institute of Mental Health (link)