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Depression in Elderly Adults: Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment

7 minute readLast updated July 8, 2020
Written by Angelike Gaunt

Depression isn’t a normal part of aging. This serious but treatable medical condition can affect how older adults think, feel, and live. Depression impairs cognitive and physical abilities in seniors, reduces quality of life, and affects overall health.

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Depression in elderly adults isn’t widespread, but seniors who have other medical conditions are more likely to have it. In fact, depression affects up to 12% of seniors who are hospitalized and up to 14% of seniors who receive home health care, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, studies show that depression in seniors often goes unnoticed and untreated.

Although occasional feelings of sadness are normal, if you suspect your aging loved one is depressed, it’s important to get help. There are many effective treatment options that can help elderly adults with depression.

Depression in seniors: risk factors

Depression affects fewer older adults than it does younger people, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. However, seniors experience important life changes that can cause sadness, stress, and anxiety, including:

Although many elderly adults adjust to these life changes with time, some may go on to develop depression. Other risk factors for depression include being a woman, having had depression before, and having a family history of depression.

Signs and symptoms of depression in seniors

Depression in seniors may be easily missed and go untreated for many reasons. Other medical conditions or medication side effects may mimic symptoms of depression in elderly adults. Seniors may also be less willing to talk about their feelings to avoid the mental health stigma, or they may prioritize discussing depression symptoms that manifest as physical problems — such as chronic pain or insomnia — during a doctor’s visit.

In some cases, symptoms of depression in seniors may be different from typical depression symptoms in younger adults. While most people who are depressed experience sadness and anxiety for at least several weeks, other common signs and symptoms of depression in elderly adults may include:

  • Apathy and fatigue
  • Sleep problems, such as insomnia or sleeping excessively
  • Anger, irritability, and sudden mood changes
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and activities they used to enjoy
  • Confusion and difficulty with attention and concentration
  • Changes in eating patterns, such as decreased appetite or overeating
  • Aches and pains that don’t get better with treatment
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

It’s natural to experience grief in the face of major life changes. But if your aging parent has symptoms of depression for several weeks or months, a visit to the doctor is warranted.

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Why you should seek help for depression

Depression can significantly affect health and increase the risk of suicide, so treatment is important. Depressed seniors are more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs, which may lead to falls and accidents.

People who are depressed may lack the desire and motivation to continue treatment and medications for other serious health conditions, such as arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease. Conversely, studies show that older adults who receive adequate treatment for depression have better health outcomes for these conditions.

Depression is also a major risk factor for suicide in the elderly. Although suicide attempts are more frequent in younger adults than in seniors, older adults — specifically older men — have the highest rate of suicide in most countries.

Depression treatment in the elderly

Treatment for depression comes in many forms. It’s important to talk to a doctor about your aging parent’s symptoms. The doctor can develop a treatment plan that will take your loved one’s overall health into consideration, while monitoring for any side effects.

Medication for depression

If your aging loved one is diagnosed with depression, their doctor may prescribe an antidepressant. There are many types of antidepressants. Before prescribing medication, the doctor will consider the severity of your parent’s depression, what’s causing it, possible side effects, and drug interactions.

It may take a few weeks for the medicine to start working. Tell the doctor if your loved one is experiencing side effects or if the medicine isn’t helping. The doctor may need to adjust the dosage of the medicine or try different medications before finding one that works well.

Therapy for depression

Many people benefit from psychotherapy or “talk therapy” alone or in combination with medication for depression. The number of sessions needed to help alleviate symptoms depends on each individual’s needs. Your doctor may recommend trying talk therapy for at least a period of 10 to 12 weeks.

Cognitive behavioral therapy has also been studied as an effective tool in treating depression. This type of therapy helps change negative thinking and behaviors that may be contributing to depression. It includes an array of therapy types, such as art therapy. Other types of therapy for depression include interpersonal therapy, which focuses on improving relationships with others, and problem-solving therapy, which helps people cope with stressful events and experiences.

For people who love animals, pet therapy may also significantly help improve mood. Certain dog breeds for instance are especially favored by seniors in need of emotional stability. The animal can even be certified as a service animal if the senior has a medical diagnosis of depression.

Electroconvulsive therapy for depression

Though controversial, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be an option in extremely severe cases of depression that are life-threatening and don’t respond to medications. This treatment has evolved over the years to be highly specialized to the person, and it’s much less invasive than in the past. The treatment uses small, electrical shocks to produce monitored activations in the brain. These activations release certain chemicals in the brain that promote alleviation from depression. ECT has been shown to provide dramatic, short-term improvement for severe depression, and it’s generally now considered safe for older adults, especially when other treatments have failed.

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How to help a depressed parent

If you think your aging loved one is depressed, the first step is to seek help. If your parent is diagnosed with depression, their doctor can offer treatment options to help.

You can also help a loved one with depression by:

  • Staying connected
    Loneliness and isolation can contribute to depression. If you’re unable to be physically close, use creativity and technology to help strengthen your bond.
  • Getting active together
    Physical activity is a powerful tool to prevent and treat depression. Invite your parent to go for regular walks, or suggest a yoga or tai chi class you can try together.
  • Improving sleep
    Lack of sleep can lead to depression. If your loved one has insomnia or sleep problems, it’s important to get treatment.

Senior living prevents loneliness by providing opportunities for activities that allow seniors to spend time with friends and peers. If your loved one needs help with daily activities or simply desires a maintenance-free lifestyle and a sense of community, talk to our Senior Living Advisors about local, affordable senior living options.


Espinoza R.T. “Diagnosis and management of late-life unipolar depression.” https://www.uptodate.com/contents/diagnosis-and-management-of-late-life-unipolar-depression.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Depression is not a normal part of growing older.” https://www.cdc.gov/prc/study-findings/research-briefs/program-helps-elderly.htm.

National Institute on Aging. “Depression and older adults.” https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/depression-and-older-adults.


Meet the Author
Angelike Gaunt

Angelike Gaunt is the Director of Editorial Content Strategy at A Place for Mom. She’s developed health content for consumers and medical professionals at major health care organizations, including Mayo Clinic, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the University of Kansas Health System. She’s passionate about developing accessible content to simplify complex health topics.

The information contained on this page is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical, legal or financial advice or create a professional relationship between A Place for Mom and the reader. Always seek the advice of your health care provider, attorney or financial advisor with respect to any particular matter, and do not act or refrain from acting on the basis of anything you have read on this site. Links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader; A Place for Mom does not endorse the contents of the third-party sites.

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