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Senior Depression: Overlooked, Different and Not Normal

Chris Hawkins Written by Chris Hawkins
SeniorLiving.Org Expert on Senior Care & Assisted Living

So what do we mean by all that? Depression in seniors is not a normal part of aging. But it affects over 6 million Americans 65 and older. It often occurs with other illnesses and lasts longer than depression in younger people. And depression in seniors is often overlooked by doctors, loved ones and even the depressed.

Senior Depression: Overlooked, Different and Not Normal

As a loved one and/or caregiver, it’s important to understand how and why these aspects of senior depression work. And as a senior experiencing depression, you should know that ignoring it won’t help and can lead to other health issues. Let’s unpack each of these in more detail.

What is Depression?

Feeling “down” or lethargic is normal for anyone, especially after traumatic events like the loss of a loved one. Persistent feelings of sadness and loss of self-worth especially when these feelings affect normal daily routine may indicate depression.

Not Normal

Depression is not a normal part of getting old. It’s not a normal part of any age. Yes, you’ll get down sometimes. You’ll experience a range of emotions after life-changing events such as retirement, death of a spouse or major illness. Feelings from these events can seem overwhelming. But you eventually bounce back.

It’s when these feelings persist, affecting daily life, that depression moves in. And though it’s not normal, it’s also not uncommon, affecting over one-fifth of the senior population.


Most seniors deal with declining physical health whether it’s a general slowing down or a chronic illness such as diabetes, heart disease or cancer. They also deal with some dulling of their mental edge. This is normal. So the popular perception is that “it must stink getting old with all these health problems.” And this is the problem.

If we think this way then we, as loved ones or caregivers, are missing a potentially big problem. Here are some chilling statistics: Those 65 and older have a higher rate of suicide than the general population. The suicide rate of people between 80 and 84 is twice the general population.

Doctors miss this too. According to some studies, about 75% of seniors who die by suicide had visited a physician within a month of their death. This is not blaming doctors for missing it. Elderly patients can mask their symptoms with drugs and alcohol. Also, the normal aches of old age occupy the doctor’s attention. And the symptoms of depression can be confused with dementia, heart disease, strokes and the effects of medication.

Some elderly people are simply not comfortable talking about their feelings. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Others just don’t want to burden others with their problems. After all, they may already have physical issues. Why throw another problem on the table?


As stated above, seniors eventually run into a physical illness and/or cognitive decline of some kind. These declines often result in depression. And for many, these physical and cognitive setbacks become part of their life. For example, someone dealing with the chronic pain of arthritis may become depressed. The arthritis isn’t going away and neither will the depression if not recognized and treated.

Here’s another difference: vascular depression. When blood vessels harden over time, they reduce the flow of blood to the brain, leading to vascular depression. This condition usually affects those 60 and older.

Finally, seniors are already at greater risk for things like cardiac disease. Depression can actually double this risk. On top of that, depression reduces a person’s ability to recover from events such as a heart attack or stroke.

Recognizing Depression in Seniors

Everyone is different so these lists won’t cover every person. But they’ll give you an idea of some of the more commons signs, symptoms and risk factors.

Factors that Increase Depression Risk

  • Being female
  • Widow(ers), single, divorced, unmarried
  • Minimal or no social support network
  • Social isolation
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Major life event such as retirement or moving to a nursing home
  • Physical conditions like cancer, dementia, diabetes, stroke and chronic pain
  • Previous history of depression
  • Family history of major depression
  • Fear of death
  • Certain medications (or combinations of)
  • Alcohol or substance abuse

Signs of Depression

  • Changes in appetite and resulting weight loss or gain
  • Feeling lethargic, decreased energy levels
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Change in sleeping patterns
  • Change in communications: e.g. they used to call or email frequently, now they do it less and less
  • More preoccupied with their physical health
  • Thought of suicide
  • Changes in daily life: Do they have an unkempt appearance where before they were always groomed? Is their house messy where before it was always clean?

Final Thoughts

The bottom line with depression in seniors: Seniors aren’t likely to let you know how they’re feeling. But you can look for some of the signs and potential risk factors. Also know that depression, if not treated, can lead to other health issues.

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