Mental Health and Aging: What You Need To Know About Geriatric Depression
Aging comes with numerous physical and mental changes that few people are fully prepared for. While the physical challenges are well-known, few people understand how aging impacts mental health. According to the World Health Organization, over 20 percent of elderly people aged 60 and over struggle with a neurological or mental disorder. This excludes headache disorders, and over 6 percent of disabilities among elderly adults can be attributed to poor mental health.
But how can aging lead to such distressing concerns? Especially considering it’s seen as an idyllic period of one’s life when they can engage in activities they once enjoyed. Let’s have a look at what geriatric depression is, how aging impacts mental health and treatment options for older adults.
What is Geriatric Depression
This is a mood disorder that affects older adults and is characterized by persistently low mood and loss of interest. Statistics by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that around 7 million US adults aged 65 years or older experience depressive symptoms every year.
While the symptoms are the same as depression at any other age, the difference is that it’s accompanied by physical and psychological consequences that lead to further consequences. Moreover, geriatric depression can occur as a result of the challenges that elderly adults face.
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How Aging Can Affect Mental Health
Aging comes with major life changes that affect how you experience and perceive the world. You may feel like you’re losing control over your life due to physical changes like hearing loss or poor eyesight. But this is just the beginning; there are many other factors that impact your mental health as you age.
Feelings of Isolation and Hopelessness
It’s quite common for seniors to experience isolation and loneliness, and these issues can have major consequences. As you age, you have fewer opportunities to connect with the people you love and the community. For many, going to work is an opportunity to meet people and interact with them, but retiring means that you no longer have that option. Similarly, you may feel lonely if you live alone and don’t have any family living nearby.
Isolation is a contributing factor for geriatric depression, but the relationship goes both ways. Depression can also exacerbate the effects of social isolation because you lose the motivation to go outside and socialize with people. And if you struggle with limited mobility, it can worsen your symptoms.
Fatigue and Pain
Seniors have a hard time managing tasks and navigating life with physical symptoms like pain and discomfort. Tasks you once found simple to do now require a lot of effort, leaving you physically and emotionally exhausted. Consequently, feelings of depression are common among all people who experience fatigue and chronic pain.
Inability to Perform Activities
For many people, retirement offers an opportunity to take some time off and try out new hobbies. But it’s common for older adults to struggle with their sense of self once they grow older. If you feel a sense of belonging and purpose because of your job, retirement can affect your sense of self.
Losing your sense of identity can contribute to feelings of depression in older adults, and it can also occur as a result of depression. When opportunities to feel happy and fulfilled seem inaccessible to you during old age, the thought of aging may leave you depressed.
Grief Over the Loss of Loved Ones
Grieving feels terrible at all ages, but the loss of loved ones becomes more common as you grow older. Losing a spouse, friend, or sibling can be a painful experience, and adjusting to life without them is much more challenging at an older age.
While low mood and feelings of hopelessness are normal when you’re grieving, it’s not a mental disorder on its own. However, being unable to recover from that loss can cause and even exacerbate feelings of depression.
Symptoms of Geriatric Depression
One of the reasons it’s difficult to diagnose older adults with depression is that their symptoms look different from those of younger people. For elders with depression, low mood may not be the primary symptom. Instead, they may experience a sense of numbness and lack of interest in everyday activities. Or they may be unwilling to talk about how they feel.
Some of the common symptoms include:
- Persistently low mood
- Feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness
- Feeling restless and irritable
- Loss of interest in activities you once found exciting
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Talking and moving more slowly than usual
- Poor concentration and decision-making
- Having trouble sleeping or oversleeping
- Unplanned weight gain or loss due to a change in appetite
- Thoughts of suicide or death
These symptoms can have a negative effect on your quality of life and present further complications. Fortunately, there are effective treatment options available.
Treating Geriatric Depression
Treatment options for geriatric depression can include medication, psychotherapy, and lifestyle changes. The American Psychological Association recommends:
- Group CBT so that members get a chance to interact while focusing on negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones.
- Life Review/Reminiscence Therapy, where seniors can think about their life, reflecting on different transitions and challenges. It helps them develop a much more balanced perspective of life.
- Medications. These include second-generation anti-depressants like SSRIs, which are recommended for elderly clients because they have a lower risk of side effects.
Perhaps the best option is to make smaller changes to your lifestyle. This includes engaging in exercise, joining book clubs, knitting groups, or other types of social groups to discuss your hobby. Or you can teach a class on something you know well, like baking, playing an instrument, or sewing.
Aging is an inevitable process, but it’s possible to prepare oneself for the challenges that come with it. This includes taking care of your physical and mental health, maintaining emotional connections with people, and seeking help when you think you need it. Geriatric depression may involve a loss of interest in activities and other symptoms as well. It can occur due to various reasons, like the loss of loved ones and feelings of loneliness. But with small changes and professional guidance, you can start feeling better.
Certified Advanced Transformative Coach Transactional Analysis Psychotherapist, specialist working with addictions. I have been working with people and helping to change lives for as long as I can remember in one way or another, while going through my own change, and learning about how the mind works, I bring together 20+ years of experience and learning from all paradigms of change models, to my current understanding of the 3 principles as uncovered by Sydney Banks in the 1970s.