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Depression in Older Adults

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Aug 31, 2022.

What do I need to know about depression in older adults?

Depression is a condition that causes feelings of sadness or hopelessness that do not go away. The person may lose interest in things he or she used to enjoy. Depression is common in older adults, but it is not a normal part of aging. Treatment is very important and can help improve the person's daily life. You can help support the person by encouraging him or her to work with healthcare providers to manage depression.

What causes or increases the risk for depression in older adults?

Depression may be caused by changes in brain chemicals that affect the person's mood. His or her risk for depression may be higher if he or she has any of the following:

  • Stressful events such as the death of a loved one, retirement, or the need to move into a care facility
  • A family history of depression
  • A chronic medical condition, such as heart disease or cancer
  • Loss of physical strength or mobility
  • Drug or alcohol abuse

What are the signs and symptoms of depression in older adults?

  • Appetite changes, or weight gain or loss
  • Trouble going to sleep or staying asleep, or sleeping too much
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Feeling restless, irritable, or withdrawn
  • Hallucinations or delusions
  • Feeling worthless, hopeless, discouraged, or guilty
  • Trouble concentrating, remembering things, doing daily tasks, or making decisions
  • Statements about wanting to hurt or kill himself or herself

How is depression diagnosed?

The person's healthcare provider will ask about symptoms and how long the person has had them. He or she will ask if the person has any family members with depression. The provider may ask you or someone close to the person to describe any symptoms if the person is not able. Tell the person's provider about any stressful events you know about in his or her life. He or she may ask about any other health conditions or medicines the person takes. The person may also need tests to rule out other conditions that can look like depression. Examples include dementia or Alzheimer disease.

How is depression treated?

  • Therapy is often used together with medicine. Therapy is a way for the person to talk about his or her feelings and anything that may be causing depression. Therapy can be done alone or in a group. It may also be done with family members or a significant other.
  • Antidepressant medicine may be given to relieve depression. The person may need to take this medicine for several weeks before he or she begins to feel better. It is important for healthcare providers to know about all medicines the person is taking. This will help providers know which medicines to recommend for the person. He or she may also need help setting up reminders to take the medicine each day.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

What can I do to help the person manage depression?

  • Call, visit, or send postcards to the person often. Check on him or her after the loss of a spouse, longtime friend, or pet. Holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries can be difficult for a person after a loss. The loss of a spouse can be painful and lonely for older adults who were married a long time.
  • Help the person connect with others. Encourage him or her to become involved in the community. Some examples include tutoring a young student or volunteering at a local organization. The person may need help setting up a computer or creating an e-mail account to help him or her remain connected to others. You may also be able to help set up a visit for the person with his or her religious or spiritual leader.
  • Encourage the person to try new things. This can help the person find new interests or meet new people. It can also help prevent him or her from focusing on depression.
  • Help the person get equipment that will increase his or her comfort and mobility. Examples are hearing aids, glasses, large print books, and walkers. These can help him or her enjoy activities and feel more independent.
  • Encourage the person to continue taking medicine and going to therapy. Medicine and therapy can help improve his or her mental health.
  • Help the person exercise safely. Exercise can lift his or her mood, increase energy, and make it easier to sleep. If possible, offer to exercise with the person. For example, you may want to schedule walks with the person. He or she may enjoy going to an event, such as an art exhibit or a museum. If the person is not able to walk, he or she may enjoy an exercise program done in a chair.
    Chair Exercises for Seniors
  • Encourage the person to seek help for drug or alcohol abuse, if needed. Drugs and alcohol can increase suicidal thoughts and make the person more likely to act on them.

Where can I go for more help if I think the person is considering suicide?

The following are available at any time:

  • For the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call either of the following:
    • 988
    • 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK)
  • For the Suicide Hotline, call 1-800-784-2433 (1-800-SUICIDE)
  • For a list of international numbers:

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • You hear the person talk about harming himself, herself, or someone else.
  • The person has done something on purpose to hurt himself or herself.

When should I call the person's therapist or doctor?

  • You think the person's symptoms are not improving.
  • You notice new signs, or the person tells you he or she is having new symptoms.
  • You have questions or concerns about the person's condition or care.

Care Agreement

The person has the right to help plan his or her care. You can help the person learn about depression and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with the person and healthcare providers so he or she can decide what care to receive. The person always has the right to refuse treatment.The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.