How to identify and treat the signs of depression in the elderly

How to identify and treat the signs of depression in the elderly

Jessica lives an hour away from her elderly mom Agnes, so she can only visit her on the weekends. To make sure that her mom is doing okay, Jessica calls her every day, sometimes several times a day. Jessica's brother Andrew lives five minutes away from their mom so he is the primary caregiver.

Lately, Jessica has noticed that Agnes seems to have lost some vitality during their phone calls, and no longer seems interested in telling Jessica about her daily walks to the park, an activity that Agnes typically enjoys very much. However, during Jessica, her husband, and her children's weekly visits with Agnes, she seems like her old happy self. Jessica brought up the subject with Andrew, but he hasn't noticed any changes in Agnes. At the time, he took the comment as a personal criticism of his caregiving and felt resentful of the way Jessica "accused" him of not taking care of their mom. Jessica apologized to Andrew because she often feels guilty about not being the hands-on caregiver that her brother is, and decided to drop the subject.

About six months later Andrew came to recognize, along with his sister, that Agnes' mood had in fact declined and their mother was showing signs of elderly depression. They knew it was time to seek medical help for her.


Coping with emotions like sadness, loneliness or frustration can be stressful for the person experiencing them, as well as for family and friends. Depression can affect anyone, at any age, but depression in older adults is often not recognized. It's important for caregivers to know that depression is not a normal part of aging.

It's important that you voice your concerns of any potential signs of elder depression.

Long-distance caregivers, like Jessica, often have a fresh perspective on a situation that has become "normal" for both the primary caregiver and the person being cared for. As a long-distance caregiver you have the advantage of noticing even slight changes in mood, physical condition, or energy levels. It's important that you voice your concerns of any potential signs of elder depression and offer suggestions to improve the quality of life for the care recipient.

Signs & symptoms of elderly depression

Common elderly depression symptoms that you can watch for include:

  • Feeling sad
  • Losing interest in activities he or she used to enjoy
  • Less energy and feeling tired
  • Not feeling well, having aches and pains
  • Feeling guilty or worthless
  • Difficulties thinking and concentrating
  • Problems sleeping (too much or not enough)
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Feeling agitated, restless and/or sluggish
  • Thoughts of suicide or death

How to deal with senior depression

Having a network of family and friends to support the person in need of care and the caregiver is crucial to combatting depression in senior adults. Here are some ways that family and friends can be there for you and the person you're caring for:

  • They can encourage the person to see their family doctor to see if the symptoms require treatment such as medication or counselling. Health professionals can administer treatment for senior depression, such as medication or therapy.
  • They can suggest ways for the person to stay socially connected, like having a friend over for tea, joining a seniors club related to a favourite hobby (e.g. chess or model trains), going to adult day programs in their community, or volunteering.
  • They can help them stay physically active by finding a walking club or exercise program at a community centre or seniors centre, or by being an exercise buddy.
  • They can show the person you're caring for how to live a healthy lifestyle by eating a healthy, balanced diet, getting regular exercise and staying socially active.

Caregiver activities to combat elderly depression

As people age they may not be interested in or able to participate in the same hobbies and social activities that they used to enjoy. As their caregiver, try encouraging new activities that he or she is able to do, such as

  • Solve puzzles or play games like cards or Scrabble which are fun, social, and can help improve brain function and fine motor skills.
  • Create a photo album. Ask him or her to help you identify photos and create a family memory book.
  • Arrange regular social activities with the person you're taking care of, like mentoring or tutoring children or teens, going to a show, or taking art workshops. Ask family members and neighbours to help arrange these activities.
  • Play interactive video games to engage the whole body in fun, physical activity. Wii games, like bowling, are popular for their variety and ease of use. There's no age limit on fun!
  • Bring on the tunes! Find their favourite music and enjoy singing and dancing.

Learn more about other end-of-life emotions.




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