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Understanding anxiety and depression in seniors

Over 2 million (of the 34 million) adults over the age of 65 suffer from some form of depression. (Source.) Depression and anxiety are conditions that commonly go undiagnosed in seniors because these individuals are usually more likely to seek help for physical, not emotional ailments. There is often also a stigma associated with mental ailments in older generations which may prevent seniors from seeking help.

Research has shown that despite the relatively low diagnosis count, anxiety and depression are relatively common in seniors. If left untreated, these mental health conditions can have devastating implications. Anxiety and depression are not normal parts of aging. If you’re caring for a senior, it’s worth your time to learn the risk factors, signs, and symptoms of anxiety and depression in the elderly.

Risk Factors for Anxiety and Depression in Seniors

There is no single cause of anxiety or depression, but most commonly it’s a result of the stress of life events and/or biological factors. Here are some common triggers that are more common for seniors:

  • Co-Occurring Illness. A large potential risk factor for mental health disorders is a concurrent illness or diagnosis that impacts their day-to-day life. Chronic illnesses common in later life that are linked to depression and anxiety include conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. (Source)

  • Widowhood. Within weeks of becoming a widow or widower, one-third of adults meet the signs and symptoms of depression, the impact of which can last for years. (Source)

  • Isolation. Becoming isolated as friends and family move away or age and pass on can become a major problem and trigger for the seniors who feel left behind.

  • Healthcare Costs. Higher rates of anxiety and depression are found in adults with higher healthcare costs. (Source)

Signs and Symptoms

The symptoms for depression and anxiety look very similar in the elderly to how they do in the general population. Despite this, there are many symptoms that may manifest more commonly (or stronger) in the elderly.

Symptoms Associated with Mood

  • A deep and incurable sadness or frequent crying sustained over several weeks

  • Panic attacks

  • Irritability

  • A struggle to find anything pleasurable (even things they once loved)

Symptoms Associated with a Changed Perception of the World

  • Withdrawal from normal or usual activities

  • Feelings of worthlessness (within themselves or with life in general)

  • Unreasonable fears and paranoia

  • Feelings of guilt, even for very minor things

  • Delusions and/or Hallucinations (these are characteristic of "psychotic" depression)

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Nervous tendencies such as pacing, wringing their hands, pulling or rubbing their hair, body, or clothing

  • Constipation

  • Unusually fast heart rate

  • Sleep disturbance: this can be difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up early

  • Changes in appetite: more commonly a loss of appetite, but sometimes it may be an increased appetite

  • Significant weight loss or weight gain

  • Fatigue, decreased energy

  • Preoccupation with physical health

  • Believing that they have cancer or some other serious illness when they don't

  • Difficulty concentrating, thinking or making decisions

  • Slowed speech, decreased amounts of speech, slowed responses with pauses before answering, and/or low or monotonous tones of voice

  • Thoughts of death or suicide or suicide attempts

(Source: Smith and Buckwalter, "When You Are More Than Just 'Down in the Dumps': Depression in Older Adults" (University of Iowa, 2006))

How to Prevent Anxiety and Depression in Seniors

If you’re providing care for a senior and you’re worried about their risks for anxiety or depression, there are a few things you can do to help.

  1. Spend time with them. Be there for them, practice empathetic listening, spend as much time with them as you can (in person is preferable, and over the phone/video chat is a great backup plan).

  2. Support them. As a caregiver, you’re already doing what you can to support your aging loved one. You should know that in doing so, you are already doing a lot to help them prevent anxiety and depression.

  3. Find help. If you’re worried that your loved one is showing signs or symptoms of depression or anxiety, find a professional and get their opinion. Clinically diagnosed depression and anxiety can be successfully controlled and often cured through treatment.

Closing Thoughts

Anxiety and depression manifests differently in different people. If you’re concerned that the senior in your care is showing signs or is potentially at risk for a mental health disorder, please seek a professional for an official diagnosis.

If you provide regular care to your loved one, we at CRC Orange County are here for you. We invite you to check out our library of information for family caregivers by clicking here for further reading and resources. You are also welcome to give us a call at 800-543-8312 to find out more about how we can support you in your caregiving journey.

If you or a loved one is experiencing feelings or thoughts of suicide, please contact online or call 1-800-273-8255.


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