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Seniors and Depression: 8 Warning Signs and Symptoms


Ever since I started writing articles on issues affecting seniors and independence, I have, as a rule, tried to focus only on lighter topics that were positive and would help older adults be more independent. But everything isn’t always sunny and rosy, especially as we age. “According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, depression affects more than 6.5 million of the 35 million Americans age 65 and older.”


Activities that once were second nature may now be difficult or impossible to perform. Other stressors include weakened eyesight or hearing. Deteriorating motor skills, balance and reaction time can also be triggers. Chronic disease and the erosion of physical skills are other causes of depression. The loss experienced from the death of friends, a spouse or other family members can also be part of the equation.


Before I go any further, let’s take a step back and define exactly what depression is. The American Psychiatric Association, says “Depression (major depressive disorder) is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. Depression causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function at work and at home.”


Not an illuminating explanation, which is probably why the factors contributing to depression in seniors are not simple or easy to diagnose. Just the opposite. Usually, it’s not just one trigger, but several. No matter how many components are contributing to a senior’s depressed state, there are signs and symptoms we can all be on the lookout for. Today, I will be sharing eight of those.


  • Social IsolationErin Cornwell and Linda Waite, professors at Cornell and the University of Chicago, respectively, writing in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, note that a lack of social interaction or poor social network can lead to serious problems of depression.


  • Major Life Event – Responding online to questions about depression, Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD, details how life changes can bring about a depressed state. These changes could include, retirement, moving, or death of a friend or loved one.


  • Substance AbuseThe Oxford Treatment Center, states that substance abuse among seniors is not an uncommon symptom of depression, often brought on by major life changes.


  • Change in Eating HabitsKatie Hurley, LCSW, reporting in Psycom, cites studies showing that changes in eating habits and the associated weight gain or loss can be symptomatic of depression.


  • Fatigue and Decreased EnergyMandy Freeman, compiling sources in Health24, cites several studies showing that depression is “an energy thief”, dulling emotions, thinking, and our natural enthusiasm for things we like to do.


  • Changes in Appearance – The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) cites changes in appearance as an outward symptom of depression. It can play out with extreme weight loss or gain. Also, the person, once a neat freak, may now be disheveled and slovenly in appearance.


  • Changes in sleep pattern – Writing in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, David Nutt, Sue Wilson, and Louise Paterson, cite changes in sleep as a symptom of depression, causing stress and other negative influences on the senior’s quality of life.


  • Chronic Physical Pain – Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, M.D. of the Mayo Clinic has found that “pain and depression create a vicious cycle in which pain worsens symptoms of depression, and then the resulting depression worsens feelings of pain.” This is especially problematic for seniors ailing from various chronic disorders including arthritis, knee pain and back ailments.



I got depressed just from rereading this list and it’s not even the tip of the iceberg of signs and symptoms we all should be aware of. There are countless other warning signs including mood swings, reckless behavior and problems concentrating. In summary, and especially for seniors, we should be wary of behaviors that negatively impact or are in direct opposition to an established normal pattern. For example, if Joe is usually neat, but now appears unkempt or is in a constant state of agitation, we should take note and look for ways to help before the behavior escalates. Diagnosing depression is far from easy. Not only are there multiple signs or triggers, but the symptoms closely resemble other diseases like dementia or Parkinson’s.


Seniors are especially vulnerable to fall prey to despondency and depression, especially if they are experiencing any of the above symptoms. Best to keep tabs on the senior in your life and lend a gentle hand if their behavior changes for the worse.