Though depression and anxiety are not the same thing, their symptoms often overlap and can work in conjunction to devastate lives, particularly the lives of senior adults.
As people age, they may increasingly worry about the onset of physical or cognitive illnesses, feel the loss of loved ones, potentially disturbed by the possibility of losing their homes, and experience financial distress. They also may suffer from feelings of isolation due to the loss or reduction of family support and social connections.
The statistics for the occurrence of depression and anxiety in the senior population is grim — 25 percent of America’s suicides occur in people age 65 and older.
What are the Differences Between Depression and Anxiety?
When a person is suffering from depression, they feel hopeless, sad about the future, and a lack of belief that positive things will occur. Depression is often accompanied by several of the following symptoms:
- Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
- Inability to make decisions and concentrate
- Loss of interest in activities
- Weight loss
- Mental impairment and an agitated state
- Thoughts of suicide
People living with depression tend to move more slowly and present dull or flat reactions. They are not as worried about the future’s possibilities as people with anxiety because they don’t believe things will improve.
Major depression occurs when several of the symptoms listed above interfere with most situations in everyday life over a prolonged period.
People suffering from anxiety are apprehensive about what is about to happen or could happen in the future. They worry about what could go wrong and want to escape or eliminate anything in their lives that could cause more anxiety. Anxiety can exist by itself, tip over into depression, or coexist with it.
Symptoms of anxiety include:
- Shaking or sweating
- Feeling the need to run away
- Rapid heart rate
- Bowel issues
- Being easily fatigued
By contrast, to depression, people with anxiety disorders are more keyed up and have trouble controlling multiple thoughts.
Get the Diagnoses First
Though the above symptoms can be a helpful guide for family caregivers, the root cause for these symptoms can be complex and misleading. A diagnosis of the number of symptoms that are demonstrated and how long they continue determines if major or minor depression is the cause.
Also consider the fact many of the symptoms are the same as those of dementia, grief, and alcoholism, and can also find their source in several different contributing factors, including medications like the following:
- Sedatives and tranquilizers
- Drugs for high cholesterol
- Drugs for high blood pressure
- Estrogen replacers
- Chemotherapy drugs
Diagnosing depression in seniors can be tricky, because the physical effects of depression can be confused with health conditions.
One common misconception is that depression is natural to the aging process. It is not. To complicate matters, seniors feel more stigma attached to mental and emotional issues and therefore try to hide symptoms. The lack of a support system for more isolated seniors also means there are fewer people to notice their symptoms. Poverty may make it difficult to receive treatment. In the vicious depressive cycle of hopelessness, seniors may believe nothing can be done anyway.
This is why it is imperative that family loved ones monitor their senior adults, and obtain a professional diagnosis to determine the next course of action.
Treatments to Reduce Depression and Anxiety
There are many successful therapies and treatment options available.
Therapies include mindfulness or mindfulness meditation where people practice living in the moment and reflecting on the positive aspects around them. The idea is to train the mind and emotions to keep from leaping into the future and thinking about all the negative things that could happen.
Mindfulness techniques include identifying positive events during the day and sharing them with someone else, thus building a store of positive thoughts.
Training in meditation can increase the ability to control thoughts and emotions and has shown psychological and physiological results in reducing stress, depression, pain, and increasing emotional well-being.
Writing entries into a “gratitude journal” is another way to hold onto the good moments of the day.
Some may find it beneficial to reflect on their own personal strengths. Examples:
- I am a good grandmother
- I know how to plan
- I’m a great gardener
- I am a supportive friend
Additionally, setting small, achievable daily goals creates a positive reinforcement each day:
- I’m going to exercise for 20 minutes
- I’m going to clean the bedroom
- I’m going to call my best friend
Health risks for depression like sleeplessness, chronic pain, loss of mobility, stroke, hearing and vision loss can contribute to depression because the mind and body are connected, so it is important to focus on physical health as well.
Becoming socially active again, pursuing an old hobby, or beginning a new one will be beneficial.
Exercise, smoking cessation, stopping alcohol consumption, practicing good nutrition, and medication management can help stave off depression.
If, despite the above therapies, the depression continues, there are a number of medications that can be prescribed to lessen or alleviate symptoms.
Sometimes these are taken in addition to the therapies. Caregivers should be aware that medications will require a longer time period to take effect than with a younger person. It is often the practice of seniors to stop taking their medications too early. Caregivers can provide monitoring and encouragement of the medication regimen. In fact, there are a number of ways caregivers can help:
- Be patient
- Help with arranging appointments with doctors or mental health professionals.
- Track adherence to treatments and therapies
- Encourage and reinforce the senior’s pursuit of positive thoughts
- Support needed lifestyle changes
- Monitor the senior for negative behaviors or signs of suicidal thoughts
Anxiety and depression can be managed, but it takes careful listening and observation, love, professional guidance, and a persistent commitment to the health and well-being of your loved one.
Being able to effectively reduce depression and anxiety is crucial to maintaining a happy and healthy life. For other tips on health and wellness, check out our blog, and schedule a tour at an independent living community near you to see how an active retirement lifestyle can improve your physical and mental health.