Quick notes:

  • The percentage of seniors taking antidepressants has more than doubled over the past 20 years.
  • Developing a social group of retirees can help with combating depression. 
  • Retirement lends itself to taking part in many activities and hobbies, which can help keep depression at bay. 

Depression in seniors on a sharp incline

A new report states that the number of adults over the age of 65 on antidepressants has doubled in 2019.

The data, from the University of East Anglia, also shows that families aren’t sure how to get older family members off depression medications.

The good news? Some medical officials say they have the key to driving depression out of the household — and it has a lot to do with nutrition and lifestyle changes.

Study researchers merged data from various studies on cognitive function and aging trends and interviewed over 15,000 U.K.-based seniors over the age of 65. In particular, the study was designed to study depression and antidepressant use by older people and how that issue is trending.

“Depression is a leading cause of poor quality of life worldwide and we know that older people may be less likely than other age groups to go to their doctor with symptoms of depression,” says Antony Arthur, a professor at UEA’s School of Health Sciences. “So we asked participants about their health, daily activities, use of health and social care services, and the medications they were taking.”

Here are the eye-opening outcomes study researchers found:

  • The percentage of older individuals taking antidepressant medications more than doubled over the course of 20 years — from 4.2% in the early 1990s to 10.7%.
  • The estimated percentage of depression among people over the age of 65 in the early 1990s was 7.9%; two decades later, it was 6.8%.
  • Depression and the use of antidepressants was more common in women than men in both the early 1990s and 20 years later.
  • Depression was associated with living in an area that is disadvantaged.
  • The percentage of people over the age of 65 living in care homes decreased, but the occurrence of depression in care homes is still the same; about 1 in 10 residents are affected.
  • There’s much more scientists don’t know about seniors and depression issues.

“The causes of depression in older people, the factors that perpetuate it, and the best ways to manage it remain poorly understood and merit more attention,” says Arthur.

A deeper dive into seniors and antidepressants — and some coping tips

A significant change in a senior’s lifestyle — like retirement, death of a spouse, and no kids living locally — can trigger bouts of depression and kick off antidepressant prescription drug dependency.

“When you consider the average life of a retired senior, it comes as no surprise that they present symptoms of depression,” says Caleb Backe, health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics, in New York City. “They might be experiencing an increase in loneliness and a lack of purpose.”

Both of these factors have the potential to create depression but can often be remedied through simple lifestyle changes, Backe says.

For example, many people have linked their work life with their social life, which means that once they stop working, they suddenly feel a gaping hole in terms of human interaction.

“To combat these feelings, it’s important for family members and friends of seniors to do their part in ensuring that seniors maintain their face-to-face interactions,” he says. “It’s also crucial to remember that your approach to your age plays a role in your physical health. If you start believing that you’re too old to take part in certain activities, or fall into the ‘expectations’ of the elderly, despite the fact that you’re a healthy, sociable individual, you could literally be harming your health.”

“Believing that you’re a valuable contributor to those around you and your society can go a long way in naturally improving both your physical and mental health as you age,” Backe states.

Aging experts who work regularly with seniors say depression odds increase once they leave the familiarity of their own home.

“We’ve had past patients who suffered from geriatric depression and were on antidepressant medication with follow-up treatments to manage remission,” says Bunny Dachs, owner of Bunny’s Home Care, a customized senior living care facility in Baltimore, Maryland. “Our caregivers observe that common symptoms of depression among the elderly under long-term care include poor concentration, difficulty in sleeping, low appetite and very low self-esteem.”

While most cases Dachs has experienced are those with existing illnesses associated with depression, the condition has become more common throughout the years among vulnerable patients in nursing homes because they experience abrupt social change.

“No matter how much emotional support and compassion they receive, some patients cannot respond well to an environment that’s far from what they had at home,” she explains. “More so, sharing a room with a complete stranger isn’t something that most of them would want to experience. Sadly, the best solution for some of them are antidepressants.”

Dachs says that for those in a home care facility or those stay-at-home patients, social support is the best non-pharmacological solution.

“Having their families come and visit seniors at predetermined schedules makes them look forward to the days that they’ll see their loved ones enter the door,” she says. “We’ve also made great efforts at reducing the stress in our home care. We try to match our programs to their past recreational activities as much as possible.”

More tips to fight back against senior depression

Health care experts are in general agreement that adults over 65 are more likely to experience depression as they are going through major life transitions.

“There is typically a lack of children in the home, leaving the workplace, and fewer responsibilities coupled with developing health problems,” says Jered Heathman, an M.D. and psychiatrist at Your Family Psychiatrist, PLLC, in Galveston, Texas. “While antidepressants may be indicated at times, seniors need to work on preparing themselves for such a major transition. That’s why self-care is incredibly important.”

Heathman offers seniors and their loved ones some tips to better cope with depression and depression symptoms.

Develop a social group of retirees. Retirement brings fewer responsibilities and more time to fill, Heathman says.

“If your closest friends haven’t retired, you’ll need to start developing a group of retired peers,” he advises. “The next time a daytime event comes up, you’ll have a potential group of participants to join you.”

Develop multiple hobbies. Even the most enthusiastic of golfers will get bored constantly playing the sport, Heathman adds. “Participate in many hobbies to keep motivation and enjoyment high,” he says.

Start a new project. Always wanted to start a charity? Do it. Religious? Volunteer to take on new projects at church. “New ideas or projects help stimulate creativity and keep our brains engaged and active,” Heathman notes.

Travel cost-effectively. Retirement allows for ample time to travel, but funds are not infinite. “Spend time to plan vacations or maximize discounts which will allow for more traveling,” he says. “Travel is stimulating and engages our mind. Learn about local history and try new things.”

Give yourself to others in a meaningful way. “Babysit for the neighbors to give them the night out,” he says. “Cook meals for the less fortunate. Offer to lend your skills to your neighborhood, without being taken advantage of. Helping others releases endorphins which promotes pleasure and fulfillment.”

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