Depression Is Not a 'Normal' Consequence of Aging

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional
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My father-in-law, now deceased, was very much a man of his time. He had a no-nonsense upbringing in a Welsh mining town and when World War II broke out, he served as a pilot. Those were times that experience required a stiff upper lip. Both deprivation and loss were commonplace ― and tolerated. His upbringing and the war left its mark on his beliefs and attitudes, but he also had a great sense of humor and a real commitment to family. When it came to himself, his tendency was to set his jaw and ignore or brush off concerns about his wellbeing. In his late sixties, his moods began to darken around the same time as his diagnosed heart condition. But even then his emotional wellbeing could only be inferred through observation. He asked for nothing and he never complained.

Over time the signs of his distress started to become more obvious. We began to find him sitting with his head in his hands. He sighed a lot, he stared into the distance, and his facial expression showed a previously unseen level of unhappiness. Even so, he remained a master of denial. As his physical state deteriorated, he became more irritable. Poor blood circulation meant signs of dementia were more obvious. Yet there were still times when things improved a little. He loved being taken for a drive. We'd invariably stop off for a drink and a snack and his mood visibly lifted during these moments.

The point of this anecdote, if you haven't already guessed, is to point out that aging and medical conditions, both physical and psychological, tend to cluster. Cardiac disease, stroke, atherosclerosis, and other conditions associated with aging all contribute to depression. On top of this, some of the medications used in their treatment have side effects that may also contribute towards depression.

Depression isn't normal

It is a cliché, of course, that as people get older they become more grouchy and cantankerous. Some people still hold on to the belief that misery is a natural feature of aging. This isn't the case, but even if it were, we need to consider the reasons. Apart from the physical aspects of aging, there is a social dimension to aging. Retirement, for example, can go one of two ways. A planned retirement can be enjoyable and successful, but where retirement is viewed as being put out to pasture, problems can develop, the most obvious of which is a perceived lack of purpose.

Many older people are lonely. They may go for days or weeks without any meaningful social interaction. Some, despite their age, are also caregivers, with all the additional pressures that role confers. Living conditions, financial problems, and a heightened sense of vulnerability all contribute to stress, which in turn leads to depression.

Never too old for treatment

Depression in older people often goes undiagnosed, but just like younger adults they have the potential to respond well to treatments for depression. Where practical, a little light exercise and regular social contact can work wonders in turning around mild to moderate depression. In more severe cases of depression, conventional treatments such as psychotherapy and antidepressant medication can also be helpful.

Give support

The elderly population is growing and living longer but we need to be a little cautious with throwaway remarks such as, "Sixty is the new forty," because everyone is different. Giving support may be as simple as suggesting someone goes for an eye or hearing test. Hearing loss excludes people from communication, and hearing problems can start at a fairly young age.

Keep in mind that some elderly people also believe misery and depression come with age. They may recognise the signs in themselves but not realize there are treatments that can help. Some may equate depression with sadness. As a result they may brush aside suggestions that there is anything wrong with them because they don't feel "sad." More typically they may complain of feeling tired, heavy, and may say their existing physical problems are causing more discomfort and pain. These are all signs of depression.

Never too old

Encouraging the elderly to take up a new hobby or interest is helpful. The old adage "never too old to learn" is absolutely true. An active mind and body protect against depression, so consider arts, crafts, exercise classes, new languages, book clubs, cooking, music, or even modifications of a previously enjoyed hobby where necessary.

See more helpful articles:

How to Lift Late-Life Depression

Older People with Depression are Ignored or Misdiagnosed

Middle-Aged Unhappiness