When we think ahead to our golden years, most of us expect them to be just that — golden. The truth, however, is that aging is not always so idealistic. For example, younger people may relish the idea of no longer working or caring for a family, but many seniors report feeling a lack of purpose once these cornerstones of their identities are no longer part of their lives. And for seniors who looked forward to filling their newfound free time with hobbies or beloved activities, chronic illness, loss of strength, poor vision and other health issues can prevent them from finally being able to do so.
Whether dealing with the natural effects of aging or a more serious illness or injury, health issues can cause some seniors to feel as though they no longer have control over their lives. This is especially true when compounded by the loss of loved ones or the financial strains of retirement. Any one or a mix of these factors can lead to feelings of sadness, anxiety and low self-esteem, as well as depression.
Depression is more than just feeling sad — it’s a mood disorder that affects your thoughts, feelings and activities of daily living, such as sleeping and eating. After receiving a serious health diagnosis, losing a loved one or transitioning from work to retirement, it’s normal to feel sad and down for a period of time. However, depression occurs when seniors are unable to regain their emotional balance after a period of adjustment. Seniors who have depression will notice difficulty with their daily lives for weeks at a time.
No matter the cause, depression can exacerbate existing health conditions, cause new ones and lead to a slew of other harmful effects. Seniors who have depression and feelings of loneliness have higher mortality rates, and they are more likely to develop dementia or other forms of memory impairment. They often take longer to recover from sickness and are at a higher risk of developing suicidal thoughts and feelings. Because of these concerns, it’s important to recognize the symptoms of depression, which include:
- Withdrawal from friends and family
- Fatigue, irritability and trouble sleeping
- A lack of appetite or extreme overeating
- Confusion or attention problems
- New or worsening aches, pains, headaches or digestive problems
- Persistent feelings of hopelessness, helplessness or worthlessness
For seniors with serious medical conditions, it may be difficult to recognize these symptoms as signs of depression. Instead, the symptoms may be attributed to an overlying health condition. However, brain disorders, cancer, heart disease, strokes and other common medical conditions often lead to depression. Moreover, medications used to treat these conditions may have side effects that contribute to depression.
Since the cause of depression in seniors is often unclear, it’s important to take action when these symptoms are present. If you believe that you or a loved one has depression, start by talking with your doctor. After a physical exam, interview and lab tests, they can determine whether or not your depression is being caused be an overlying medical condition or by certain medications. Should they rule out these causes, your doctor will likely refer you to a mental health professional for a psychological evaluation.
You can also make lifestyle changes to help ease the symptoms of depression. Try to prepare for major life changes ahead of time and talk with your loved ones about any negative feelings you may have about the changes. Maintain a regular exercise routine and a healthy diet to avoid illnesses that can lead to depression. If you notice yourself feeling down, try to engage in activity you enjoy.
While aging is a normal part of life, depression is not a normal part of aging. Know that it’s not uncommon to have trouble adapting to major life changes that occur with age, and depression is often a result of these changes. Do not feel embarrassed or ashamed for seeking help for your feelings. Rather, know that you’re taking steps to make those golden years golden after all.