If you've got a "grumpy old man or lady" in your life, he or she may be depressed. According to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation (GMHF), depression affects 15 percent of Americans seniors. Depression is a serious illness characterized by a combination of symptoms that disrupt normal living.  Everybody feels down in the dumps occasionally, but when that bad mood persists, it's time to get help. The National Institute of Mental Health lists the following as common symptoms of depression:

  • Persistent sad, anxious or "empty" feelings
  • Hopelessness, pessimism, guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Lost interest in pleasurable activities including sex
  • Fatigue, decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and decision-making
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • Overeating or appetite loss
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • Aches, pains, headaches and/or digestive problems

Seniors are often under-diagnosed and under-treated because they may experience less obvious symptoms and because of the stigma attached to mental illness by older generations.  Seniors aren't always comfortable discussing emotions and instead use phrases like, "I don't feel well." They may neglect grooming, cooking, cleaning, social activities, or even display symptoms similar to dementia. The GMHF says untreated depression can lead to disability, worsening of other illnesses, premature death, and increased suicide risk.

Chronic or serious illness is the most common cause of senior depression due to difficulty performing basic activities and medication side effects.   Other triggers are the death of a spouse or friends, lost sense of purpose and/or diminished income after retirement, and isolation from disability or lack of transportation.

While many seniors are eager for treatment, others avoid seeking help.  Families can intervene by accompanying them on medical appointments to describe symptoms and explain treatment.  Studies show antidepressants are effective in seniors but lifestyle changes including diet, exercise, increased socialization and renewed sense of purpose are important for treating underlying causes. A treatment plan called PEARLS (Program to Encourage Active, Rewarding Lives for Seniors) created at the University of Washington School of Medicine for low income, housebound seniors, involves visits and phone calls from therapists and problem-solving psychotherapy focused on physical activity and socializing. PEARLS participants report 50 percent more reduction of symptoms than seniors receiving standard care.

Families can assist with transportation for errands, socializing, and appointments and encourage them to try new things like classes at community colleges or senior centers. Provide opportunities for active participation.  Ask them to baby-sit or make dinner. Seniors are welcome assets to the work force. Information about paid and volunteer opportunities is available through SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) or RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program). Renewed purpose goes a long way to making life worth living again.