Geropsychiatric Center Director: It’s not too late to seek treatment for later life depression

Terri Waldman

Terri Waldman

Here’s something we seldom talk about: Depression robs people of living full lives.

Feeling hopeless, disengaged or flat is not a normal part of aging – even though more than half of Americans over the age of 75 think it is.

Did you know:

  • –  the suicide rate for those between 80-84 is twice that of the general population?
  • –  elderly white males are fully six times more likely to commit suicide?
  • –  more than 6 million older adults have depression, but only 1 million will ever seek treatment?

If you didn’t, it’s probably because there isn’t enough awareness of the impacts of depression – or its sister, dysthymia, which is a low-level state of depression in which people are functional but find symptoms getting in the way of overall happiness.

Think about your conversations with friends: We’re generally fine with sharing that our knees ache, or we’re scheduled for a hip replacement, or that the doctor ordered a stress test to check out the ticker. But there’s still a stigma about acknowledging mental health issues.

We’re getting better at the discussion. Baby Boomers have far more readily embraced therapy than previous generations. But those questions still linger. Why can’t you just snap out of it? You’ve got so many gifts in your life, what do you have to be down about? You’re just getting old, so why can’t you accept this is just the way life is?

But depression is not necessarily tied to what you have and don’t have. You can have everything you need in life to survive – but do you have that sense of peace and happiness? Depression renders you incapable of finding your joy, leads to feelings of negativity and can cause a host of associated problems in your relationships, work and social engagements. It can impact your physical health as well, because if you’re ambivalent, you’re probably not eating well, exercising or following up with your physician appointments.

The good news is that treatment is typically very successful, with as many as 8 in 10 people seeing improvement. The most effective treatment seems to be a combination of medication and therapy, with medication helping to stabilize any chemical imbalances and therapy helping to treat any underlying issues that may be holding you back. Not everyone can take medication, so there are other things that may be helpful to try, including some other integrative therapies, such as meditation. Talk to your primary care provider to get started and get a referral to a therapist.

If your loved one is experiencing depression, it is helpful to try gentle encouragement to get them to participate in life, but be cautious not to contribute to feelings of shame and guilt.

Check in with your primary care provider, too, if you or a loved one are experiencing changes in your appetite, sleep or concentration – or feeling increased irritability, decreased motivation and increased use of alcohol or prescription drugs.

Depression might be the cause of those symptoms, and there are a number of consequences if left untreated. The major consequence: You’re miserable. Life can be hard, but you’re still here, waking up every day. I hope you or your loved one make the choice to find your joy.

Terri Waldman has more than 20 years experience providing services, advocacy and leadership in the field of aging in Pima County. Currently, she is director of patient care services for the Tucson Medical Center Geropsychiatric Center at Handmaker, which offers short-term inpatient mental health services for older adults.

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