At one point in your parents’ life, depression was a topic no one spoke about–if they were even aware of it. Today, that’s not the case. Even though depression’s no longer one of those unspoken topics, however, people rarely think of it in terms of seniors. While depression can be a very serious issue for adolescents and young adults, it’s also damaging one of our most vulnerable populations—the elderly.

Some people assume that being depressed is just a fact of life when you get older, but it’s not; in fact, though depression is common enough that it can be mistaken as dementia, it’s very possible to live a happy and fruitful life long after retirement.

While there are biological and mental causes of depression, a person’s environment contributes to its development as well. And, let’s face it, growing old is no picnic. At any given time, a senior may have to deal with one or all of the following possible causes of depression:

–          Health problems, which can not only exacerbate that feeling of being stuck, but can also affect self-worth and sometimes even count depression among their symptoms;

–          Loneliness and isolation created by the loss of mobility, a driver’s license, and the dispersion—or death—of one’s family;

–          Reduced sense of worth, thanks to leaving the workforce, having children ‘leave the nest,’ or physical limitations on beloved activities;

–          The many fears that accompany aging, such as a fear of illness, death, loss of mental faculties or independence, and anxieties over finances and the wellbeing of loved ones;

–          And bereavement and grief following the losses of friends, spouses, siblings, and other loved ones an individual has known for a long time.

To even further increase the risks, many of the medications that seniors frequently take—including beta-blockers, sleeping pills, and drugs used to treat arthritis and various heart diseases—can worsen existing depression or even have depression listed as a possible side-effect.

So how can you tell whether or not it’s depression? It can be tricky, especially since the physical symptoms that accompany depression—lethargy, lack of concentration, and a disinterest in previously enjoyed activities—can mimic various types of depression.

–          They notice their problems. If your senior is having mental symptoms and is both aware of them and possibly worried about them, there’s a good chance it’s depression, and not dementia; seniors with dementia are generally more unaware.

–          Mental decline is rapid. If the mental decline progresses at a slower, more staid pace, it may be dementia; decline due to depression occurs much more quickly.

–          Concentration vs. memory. Is the issue also with their short-term memory? It may be dementia. If they’re just having trouble concentrating, chances are that it’s depression.

What symptoms should you be worried about?

–          Sadness

–          Fatigue

–          Abandoning or losing interest in hobbies or previously-enjoyed activities

–          Social withdrawal and self-isolation

–          Weight loss or loss of appetite

–          Self-medication via alcohol or other drugs

–          Sleep disturbances (insomnia or hypersomnia)

–          Loss of self-worth

–          Fixation on death or suicidality

As always, if you have any concerns about your loved one—or yourself—consult a physician.