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What is late-life depression?


Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the United States, impacting nearly 35 million people in this country alone. There’s a lot of conversation about depression in the adolescent, teenage and young adult group, as well as adults in middle-age, but it seems to be that depression in older adults isn’t nearly as discussed.

When Emeline, 92, lost her husband Lucas two years ago, she found that despite daily visits from one or more of her 13 grandchildren, as well as weekly dinners with friends, she couldn’t shake the sadness that followed her beloved’s passing.

Her granddaughter, Sarah, says that the family began to notice something was wrong about a month after Lucas’ passing.

“Gram and Grampy had been together since they were like, 17 or 18, I think,” she recalls. “Grampy couldn’t go anywhere without Gram… in their last ten years together, it was like they were newlyweds. They were so in love, and so dependent on each other.

“When Grampy went into hospital, which was about a month before he died, Gram was so strong. She was with him every day, and she was laughing and making sure he was comfortable and she was actually comforting us. She kept saying this was the cycle of life and we needed to be okay with it.

“Turns out she was the one who wouldn’t be.”

Emeline, as expected, remained in her sadness for days following the funeral. But she turned out social events out of her home, which wasn’t like her – she’d always been a fun-loving, down-for-anything woman. She spoke very little. She ate very little. She’d stare into space when the kids came by, oblivious to their conversation and laughter.

Three months later, Emeline began to refuse to eat, choosing to remain in bed even as the noon hour would draw near. She stopped answering the phone, which prompted each of her children to make a key to their mother’s house so they could drop by unannounced and check on her.

Of the millions of depressed people in the United States, it is estimated that late-lifedepression – depression that affects the person after the age of 65 – is actually not that common, affecting about 2 million people, or 6% of the elderly population.  The problem is that because of so many sad things that occur late in life – lost long-term partners or spouses, repeated grief over an increasing number of deaths experienced, cognitive impairment, financial issues and chronic pain – many older people don’t realize they’re suffering from a mental illness. Some believe it’s normal, part of life, and cannot be remedied.

But this is so untrue. When an elderly loved one seems to be suffering from long-term sadness, it’s important that friends and family members address it and intervene, in the event it is a serious mental health condition. It’s also vital that a professional is brought in for a consultation – sometimes, people mistake late-onset depression as dementia, because sometimes the depression is so debilitating that the individual can no longer normally function, and most certainly can’t say what’s bothering them out loud.

Depression, even late-life, is treatable.

If you know someone you think may be suffering from late-life depression, some of the symptoms to watch out for include withdrawal from daily activities that once brought them joy; extreme fearfulness or anxiety; fidgeting; pacing; and a decreased ability to perform self-care, like taking a shower or brushing their teeth. They may be experiencing significant weight loss, or complain of increasing physical pain without reason. They may report frequent headaches or stomach upset, may be often fatigued, and might be slow to respond physically and verbally.

They may also begin speaking of death or suicide, in extreme cases. They may be forgetful, indecisive, incapable of making decisions, or concentrating. They be angry a lot, agitated, irritable, or hopeless.

The good news is, as we’ve shared, late-life depression can be treated. With attention and care and tailored treatment, it can be managed, and in many cases, overcome.

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