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We all feel a little sad or down from time to time but feeling down is not the same as being depressed.

Here we look particularly at how depression can affect older people and draw attention to the events and situations that can make it more likely. Recognising symptoms and seeking help early on and then being offered appropriate treatment and support can increase your chances of improving how you feel and promote a lasting recovery.

What is depression?

If you are depressed, the feelings of sadness and general lack of motivation that we can all experience from time to time are more intense and can persist for weeks or months. The feelings become so bad that they interfere with the way you think and behave and affect your daily life.

Could you be at risk?

Depression can just happen. But in many cases it can be ‘triggered’ by significant life events, especially events connected with loss. We tend to think of loss in terms of the distress we feel on losing a partner or close friend. But other types of loss are more common as we grow older too and can affect our self-esteem or how we see our place in the world. They include:

  • loss of your job and daily routine when you retire – you may have been looking forward to retirement but when it comes, find it hard to adjust to the loss of a structure to your day, contact with colleagues and the purpose that working gave to your life.
  • loss of good health – this could be a chronic condition like arthritis or hearing and sight problems that can get gradually worse; or a sudden change in your health that affects your previous sense of ‘invincibility’ such as having a heart attack. Poor health, particularly having a chronic health condition, is one of the most common factors contributing to depression in later life.
  • loss of independence – this may come if you have an illness that means you need to depend more on other people or can no longer drive or if you take on a caring role that affects your own social life.
  • loss of a much loved home – if you need to down-size to a more manageable property or move into sheltered housing or a care home.
  • loss of your social network – this can happen if you move home, if close friends or family move away or die or if poor health or mobility mean you can no longer take part in activities you’ve enjoyed for many years.
    These situations might make anyone feel sad or a bit down and not everyone who experiences them goes on to develop depression. The important thing is to be aware of how these situations can be triggers for depression.

Can risk of depression be reduced?

If you are going through difficult times, you should seek support and help early on. This can prevent the normal reaction to sadness or a change circumstances turning into depression. Do not to brush how you feel under the carpet and hope it will sort itself out. Symptoms are likely to get worse if you do.

If you suspect a relative is in danger of, or could be, suffering from depression, then try and talk to them about it. The risk of developing depression increases when people feel alone and unsupported. Consider the following:

  • be watchful and offer emotional and practical support particularly if the person does not live nearby
  • look for signs that they are neglecting themselves or perhaps drinking more alcohol than usual
  • express your concerns and let them know what you’ve observed
  • encourage them to make an appointment with their GP or another professional at the practice they feel comfortable with and offer to go with them.

Men can find it particularly difficult to talk about or admit to how they feel and so are much less likely to seek help from family, friends or their GP

Some of the barriers to seeking or receiving help

Depression is a normal part of ageing – this is a widespread belief among some professionals and young and old people alike. But depression is not a normal part of ageing.
There is a range of effective treatments that can be tried and are effective, regardless of your age. Do not let yourself or your relative accept depression as an inevitable part of life.

I should be able to snap out of it myself or feeling like you this is a sign of weakness – commonly held beliefs that prevent many people seeking the much needed support and help they deserve.

I should only bother my family and friends or the doctor with a physical illness – when physical symptoms dominate, a diagnosis of depression is more likely to be overlooked. So it is important to talk about what is happening in your life and how you feel in yourself as well as any physical aches and pains.

A mental health problem is not as deserving of help as a physical health problem – a common thought but remember doctors are trained to diagnose and treat both mental and physical illness.

Depression and mental illness can have stigma attached to it and so you are reluctant to admit to a problem that you feel could reflect badly on you or your family – this is a common reason for not seeking help. Depression is a real illness that deserves treatment and can be successfully treated.

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