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Depression Is Not Part of the Aging Process

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I am seeing a man who is 69 and care about him a great deal. I believe he is depressed and has been for many years. He doesn’t see it and believes therapy is useless because therapists don’t tell you what to do. He also rejects all medications. Is there any way I can influence him to get help?

Answer: It is difficult to watch someone you care about suffer from depression and not seek help when it is available. Let’s begin by discussing what we know about depression and aging.

Depression is not part of the normal aging process, although according to Mental Health America (formally the National Mental Health Association), more than half of older Americans think it is. That is one reason it is ignored. We know that depression in later life affects 6 million Americans, mostly women.

Attitudes play a role. Only about one-third of older people believe that depression is a health problem. And of all age groups, older Americans are more likely to handle depression themselves with only 42 percent seeking professional help. According to Mental Health America, 80 percent of all depression cases can be treated successfully with psychotherapy, medication or a combination of both.

In general, men are more reluctant to seek help than women. Dr. Norman Sussman, Professor of Psychiatry at New York University is quoted in an interview in Everyday Health, “Men are less likely to seek treatment, in part because there’s a tendency for men to tough it out.” They are taught to grin and bear. .

Depression is more than just feeling down in the dumps or blue for a few days. It is feeling low and hopeless for weeks, months and sometimes years. It is considered a serious medical illness.

What causes depression?

According to the National Institute on Aging, a single event can cause the illness. It can strike people who feel well, but find themselves struggling with a loved one’s serious illness or a death in the family. Depression can be trigger by a loss of health, moving from friends and family, losing a job and income, and retirement.

Depression also can because by reasons unrelated to events, such as changes in brain chemistry and genetics.

And some get depressed for no apparent reason. Clearly, there is no single cause.

Perhaps you can help your special friend reach his own conclusion by suggesting he complete a Geriatric Depression Scale. The assessment tool has been subject to rigorous validity and reliability testing. It is not a substitute for a diagnostic interview by mental health professionals.

Here are 15 questions, instructions and scoring:

Indicate “yes” or “no” describing how you felt over the past week.

  1. Are you basically satisfied with your life?
  2. Have you dropped many of your activities and interests?
  3. Do you feel that your life is empty?
  4. Do you often get bored?
  5. Are you in good spirits most of the time?
  6. Are you afraid that something bad is going to happen to you?
  7. Do you feel happy most of the time?
  8. Do you feel helpless?
  9. Do you prefer to stay at home, rather than going out and doing new things?
  10. Do you feel you have more problems with memory than most?
  11. Do you think it is wonderful to be alive now?
  12. Do you feel pretty worthless the way you are now?
  13. Do you feel full of energy?
  14. Do you feel that your situation is hopeless?
  15. Do you think that most people are better off than you are?

Give yourself a point for the following questions to which you answered yes: 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14 and 15.

Give yourself a point for each of the following questions that you answered no: 1, 5, 7, 11 and 13.

A score of 0 to 5 is normal; more than 5 suggests depression and warrants a follow-up interview. A score of more than 10 is almost always considered depression.

For further information and assistance, consider contacting a geriatrician or mental health professional in your community.

Best wishes on a successful mission. Your special friend is fortunate to have you as his friend.

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

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