Depression in Your Elderly Loved One: What to Watch For and How to Help

With modern-day advancements in medicine and technology, Americans are living longer, more independent lives. That’s encouraging news, but our growing longevity comes with a dark side: Many older Americans are living increasingly isolated lives.

Such seclusion, especially when it is prolonged, can lead to depression and a decreased quality of life. It’s estimated that almost half (46 percent) of all women 75 and older live alone. Even more troubling is that while seniors account for just 13% of the U.S. population, they make up 20% of all suicides. White males are particularly vulnerable, and those 85 and older have the highest suicide rate in the country, according to the National Institute of Mental Health’s 2015 report Older Adults and Depression. Clearly, we need to be aware of the potential for depression when it comes to our senior loved ones.

How to Tell If You Elderly Loved One is Depressed

Clinical depression in the elderly is actually quite common, and late-life depression affects an estimated 6 million Americans aged 65 and older. Sadly, only 10% end up receiving treatment since they either fail to recognize the symptoms or don’t take the steps to get the help they need. The initial signs of depression can be subtle and difficult to identify. Rather than say they have the blues, many depressed seniors will instead complain of low motivation, lack of energy or physical problems. In fact, bodily complaints are often the predominant symptom of depression in older adults. According to, some other signs to watch out for include:

  • Loss of interest in socializing or hobbies
  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Sleep disturbances (difficulty falling or staying asleep, oversleeping, or daytime sleepiness)
  • Loss of self-worth (worries about being a burden, feelings of worthlessness or self-loathing)
  • Slowed movement or speech
  • Increased use of alcohol or other drugs
  • Memory problems
  • Neglecting personal care (skipping meals, forgetting meds, neglecting personal hygiene)
  • Fixation on death and thoughts of suicide

Depression as a Side Effect of Illness or Medication

Many medical conditions can cause depression. Any chronic illness that is painful, disabling or life-threatening can bring on depression or make an existing depression worse. According to, these conditions include:

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Vitamin B-12 deficiency
  • Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
  • Lupus
  • Multiple sclerosis

Many commonly prescribed drugs can also cause or worsen depression, and older adults can be more sensitive to this issue as their aging bodies become less efficient at metabolizing and processing drugs. This effect can be especially pronounced among those who are taking multiple medications, either prescribed or over the counter. Some of the common offenders include:

  • Blood pressure medication
  • Beta-blockers
  • Sleeping pills
  • Ulcer medication
  • Tranquilizers
  • Steroids
  • Cholesterol drugs
  • Painkillers and arthritis drugs
  • Calcium-channel blockers
  • Estrogens
  • Medication for Parkinson’s disease

How Caregivers Can Help

Coping with an aging loved one can be challenging in and of itself, but difficulties can become magnified when that person is suffering from depression, a frequently stigmatized and misunderstood illness. While every situation is different, below are five strategies that may help you:

  1. Get educated: Taking steps to better understand your loved one’s symptoms, treatments and recovery plan can make it easier for you to support them. Education can also prevent you from offering unhelpful or judgmental advice (e.g., telling them to “just cheer up” or “look on the bright side”).
  2. Get support: Having a loved one with depression can be stressful and disruptive. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers support groups and other resources for people suffering from mental illness and their loved ones. Such groups can help you feel less isolated and better manage your emotions regarding your loved one’s illness, which in turn could make it easier for you to help them.
  3. Don’t blame yourself: You may be wondering if you are to blame for your relative’s depression, and perhaps you may feel guilty for not recognizing their symptoms sooner or doing more to help. If this is the case, please remember that the causes of depression are complex, and assigning blame won’t be beneficial for anyone. Instead of dwelling on “what ifs” and who’s to blame, look for ways that you can help your loved one right now.
  4. Allow your loved one Independence: People with depression often feel as if they have lost control, so it’s imperative that you treat your depressed elderly relative with respect. Resist the urge to exert control over their life. Rather than make assumptions about what’s in their best interest, discuss with them about the type of support they want on their road to recovery.
  5. Maintain a positive attitude: Another way you can help your loved one is to convey an attitude of compassion, acceptance and hope. Acknowledge their courage in pursuing treatment, as it’s often an extremely challenging thing to do. It’s beneficial for them to know that you’re on their side and believe in their ability to face their challenges and get better.

If an elderly person you care about is depressed, you can make a difference by offering emotional support, patience and compassion. You don’t need to “fix” someone’s depression; just being there to listen is enough. You can also help by seeing that your family member gets an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Assist your loved one in finding a good doctor, accompany them to appointments and offer your moral support.