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How to Recognize and Address the Signs of Depression in Your Aging Parent

By Nancy Kupka PhD, RN, Walgreens

You hear a lot of buzz in the news about depression among adolescents and new mothers, but you don’t hear much about depression among older individuals. After all, as they grow older, people develop new health problems, become less physically active and more socially isolated, so it’s normal to get a little depressed — right? Actually, no, that’s not right. .

Depression is a common problem among older adults, but it’s not a normal part of aging. Rather, it’s a serious medical condition that requires attention and if deemed appropriate, professional help. You can help your aging parent recognize the signs of depression and get help.

Symptoms of Depression in Older People

Almost 5 percent of Americans over the age of 50 experience at least one major depressive episode per year, similar to the rate among younger Americans. But these signs may be different in older adults than in young people. For some older adults, the symptoms of depression may be subtler than just feelings of sadness. Even health care providers can miss symptoms of depression in their older patients, as shown by the small number of referrals from primary care providers to geriatric care and mental health care providers.

This list, adapted from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Aging, identifies some of the warning signs associated with depression among older individuals:

  • Noticeable changes in mood; feeling distant from others, flat, empty or anxious
  • Changes in energy level; feeling tired all the time but having trouble sleeping, or sleeping too much
  • Difficulty carrying out daily activities for weeks at a time
  • Trouble concentrating; feeling restless or on edge
  • Irritability, anger or lashing out at others
  • Increased worry or stress or obsessing about minor problems or events
  • Heavy use of alcohol or drugs
  • Loss of interest in once pleasurable hobbies and acitivites, including sex
  • Sadness, hopelessness, crying, or having suicidal thoughts

A quick, easy and confidential way to determine if one may be experiencing depression is to take a mental health screening. A screening is not a diagnosis, but a way of understanding if one’s symptoms are having enough of an impact that one should seek help from a doctor or other professional.

If your aging parent doesn’t have internet access, they can ask their primary care doctor to do a screening at their next visit.

Getting help

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of depression, it is important to seek professional help before these symptoms reach a point of crisis. Depression is a serious condition, and someone struggling cannot just “snap out of it.”

Don’t drag your feet about asking for help and seeking the most appropriate treatment, either. There are a range of options available to help address symptoms of depression including; talk-therapy, connecting with peers through support groups, medication, and alternative therapies. It is important to know that depression can lead to suicide, especially when it’s left untreated. But take heart in knowing that most older adults with depression respond well to treatment.

The first step in getting help for depression is to talk to your parent. People with depression may not even realize that they’re struggling, so express why you’re concerned in a caring, supportive way. Be sure to explain that depression is a medical condition and not something to feel ashamed of. Then suggest that your parent see a primary care provider or a provider who specializes in depression among older individuals. The important thing is to have someone knowledgeable diagnose and address the needs of your aging parent.

You can continue to support your parent after a diagnosis. Offer to go to appointments, therapy sessions, or drive them to support group meetings, help make a list of questions to ask the doctor and make sure to get the answers, and pick up prescriptions (if medication has been prescribed). Check in often to see how your parent is feeling. Keep in mind that being homebound can increase the feelings of isolation and worsen the symptoms of depression. If your aging parent has mobility difficulties, look into assistive devices to help facilitate getting out of the house and engaging in social interaction.

With the proper attention and support, your parent can age without falling victim to depression.


Nancy Kupka PhD, RN is a writer for Walgreens, where you can find mobility scooters to aid in getting out of the house for doctors’ appointments to social activity. During her over 30-year career, Nancy worked in home care for over eight years and witnessed depression first hand in many homebound seniors.
Although it is intended to be accurate, neither Walgreen Co., its subsidiaries or affiliates, nor any other party assumes for loss or damage due to reliance on this material. Walgreens does not recommend or endorse any specific tests, physicians, products, procedures, opinions, or other information that may be mentioned in the article. Reliance on any information provided by this article is solely at your own risk.

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