Helping seniors spot depression

Helping seniors spot depression

Disinterest in activities, inattention and lack of energy may signal many ailments. Mood change, sleep disorders and behavioral problems can mimic dementia or other neurological conditions. Additionally, pain and other problems may lead to a general feeling of worthlessness or lack of interest in everyday life.

But depression is an illness that often gets ignored in our elderly population, even though it’s not a normal part of aging.

The signs and symptoms of depression seen with younger age groups are often not the same with our elders. Seniors may not always be able to articulate their feelings or identify the source of their problem or pain which makes screening even more important.

About one-third of elderly patients who come to the emergency room for something else also show signs of depression, according to research cited in a 2010 study in the journal Annals of Emergency Medicine.

About 75 percent of older adults who commit suicide actually saw a physician a month before their death. But their depression was never addressed, according to research cited by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Why is it so important to recognize and screen for depression in our elderly population?

Depression is associated with poor outcomes after surgery, a decline in functional status, higher mortality and increased health care costs. Recent stressful situations or sudden loss can contribute to the development of depression.

Seniors most at risk include those who:

  • Have outlived a spouse
  • Have multiple chronic conditions
  • Have poor social support
  • Are experiencing cognitive impairment, such as dementia
  • Are having financial difficulties.

Screening and treating depression in seniors

Health care providers are in a unique position to screen for depression and identify an individual who may need a more comprehensive evaluation. A short screening test may consist of asking questions such as:

  • Are you basically satisfied with life?
  • Do you find yourself often bored?
  • Do you prefer to stay at home, and not go out?
  • Have you often felt helpless?
  • Have you recently felt little pleasure or interest in doing things?

Prevention is the best treatment. Identifying sources of stress, treating associated chronic conditions and having a strong support system are useful coping mechanisms.

But, if help is needed, the first step is to recognize that you cannot handle the problem alone. Thoughtful friends and relatives who suggest that “all will be fine” may not know how to help.

A health care provider can determine treatments or courses of action that can address the causes. Alternative therapies may work for some but not all individuals. Sometimes, medications to ease the symptoms may be needed for relief. If you have a concern, contacting your health care provider is the best place to start.

Learn more information about Advocate’s mental health services, or look for a doctor who can help.

Related Posts



  1. Great article! There are many of us adult children who are caregivers to our elderly parents and see this in our loved ones but often can't do anything about it. So I think healthcare providers need to tune into their patients and ask questions that are even more appropriate for that particular patient, not just rote screening questions.

  2. This validates a lot of experiences I've gone through. My family members are feeling more depressed because they are finding themselves having to rely on more family members for simple things. It's important that we continue to support them and spot depression signs early instead of ignoring them.

Subscribe to health enews newsletter

About the Author

Sue Durkin
Sue Durkin

Sue Durkin, MSN, CCRN, CCNS, is an Advanced Practice Nurse and Certified Clinical Nurse Specialist for Geriatrics at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital. Her experience includes more than 35 years in nursing in critical care, eduction, research and care for patients of all age groups. She received her master's degree in nursing from Northern Illinois University and baccalaureate in nursing from the University of Illinois. Sue is a member of the clinical team at Good Samaritan Hospital's Memory Assessment Center for cognitive disorders.