Depression in the Elderly

7 Ways to Help Seniors Cope

with Depression

Throughout our lives, we look forward to our senior years. We expect our ‘golden years’ to be a time when we can retire, relax, and enjoy the fruits of our labors. It should be a happy time. Unfortunately for many, with age comes financial woes, illness, and the natural weakening of the body and mind. Growing older often naturally causes the onset of depression in seniors, and seniors have the highest rate of suicide in the country.

Depression, in people of any age, is a serious medical condition. It progresses slowly, often without one knowing they’re becoming depressed. Even if one is aware of feelings of depression, the condition is associated with a number of stigmas that can prevent people from seeking help. Those with depression, including seniors, may feel that if they acknowledge their depression they’ll become a burden on their family, they’ll be thought of as crazy, or they’ll be considered weak. These are personal issues we must understand if we are to help seniors cope with depression. offers a list of 7 ways to help seniors who are suffering from depression:

  1. Don’t miss the symptoms – “If your parent is not eating for more than a few days, or loses interest in activities that used to give her pleasure for more than two weeks, it could be depression,” says Joel E. Streim, MD, professor of geriatric psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania
  2. Talk about how they feel – “It’s really important to hear [seniors] out and honor their emotions. Listening offers direct comfort and support,” says Kathleen Buckwalter, PhD, RN, professor of gerontological nursing at the University of Iowa
  3. Look for subtle signs – “[Seniors] show signs of distress by wringing their hands excessively, getting agitated or irritable, or having difficulty sitting still,” says Dr. Streim
  4. Don’t impose your terminology – “I don’t say the words ‘depression,’ ‘drugs,’ or ‘therapy’ if an older adult doesn’t buy into the idea that they need help,” says Dr. Streim, “I listen closely to what has changed in their life.”
  5. Recognize that depression is an illness – “I have seen people so sick with their depression that they can’t get out of bed," says Dr. Streim
  6. Don’t take over a person’s life – “Doing things for a depressed person is often not helpful at all, because it reinforces their perception that they are worthless and incapable,” Dr. Buckwalters says.
  7. Try to participate in medical care – Because of new confidentiality laws, geriatric psychiatrists can’t disclose information to families without their patient’s permission. Try to get your loved one’s permission to talk to their doctor, so you can be in the know.

Sometimes the only thing you can do to help a senior who is suffering from depression is to offer a shoulder to cry on or an ear for listening. That might make you feel useless or ineffective. However, by simply being there for your elderly loved one you are greatly helping them cope with their depression more than you may know.

A detailed booklet that describes Depression symptoms, causes, and treatments, with information on getting help and coping is available from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

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Writer: Ryan Allen