Depression & Loneliness in the Older Adult

While depression and sadness are often viewed as the same thing, depression is more than just feeling “blue”. While sadness can be painful, it is a normal response to difficult life events. Everyone gets sad sometimes. Depression, however, is a medical condition which if left untreated can have lasting and sometimes fatal effects.

The American Psychiatric Association defines depression as a mood disorder in which the individual commonly reports feeling, for a time period of two weeks or more, sad or blue, uninterested in things previously of interest, psychomotor retardation or agitation, and increased or decreased appetite.

Depression is the most common type of mental illness, affecting more than 19 million American adults every year. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that by 2020 depression will be the second-leading cause of disability in the world second only to heart disease.

While depression is not a normal part of the aging process, research suggests that as many as 15% of elders – (that’s 6.5 million Americans) suffer from depression, and  25% report persistent feelings of sadness. Evidence has shown that chronic illness, which is more common in later life, can increase the likelihood of developing mental disorders, especially depressive disorders.

While genes, biology, environment and lifestyle all impact whether or not a person of any age develops depression, there are some things which tend to impact seniors more than their younger counterparts such as chronic or co-occurring illnesses, the loss of a spouse or other loved ones, healthcare costs, feelings of loss following retirement, lack of a support system, isolation and a lack of socialization, and loneliness.

Older adults may be less likely to seek treatment or even acknowledge they may need help, thinking they “can handle it themselves”. According to research by Mental Health America, 68% of adults over age 65 know little about depression and only 38% believe it is a health problem. In fact, over half of seniors believe depression is a “normal” part of aging.

However, depression is never a “normal” part of aging. If you think you or a loved one might be suffering from undiagnosed depression some commons signs or symptoms include:

  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
  • Loss of interest in daily activities.
  • Appetite or weight changes.
  • Sleep changes.
  • Anger or irritability.
  • Loss of energy
  • Self-loathing.
  • Reckless behavior.
  • Concentration problems.
  • Unexplained aches and pains.


When signs and symptoms are recognized by family and friends, it is important to openly share concerns about the changes and identify what is being observed. How can you help?

  • Encourage the older adult to verbalize concerns and fears.
  • Invite and encourage participation in activities that have always brought enjoyment.
  • Seek medical consultation for the older adult.  Sometimes depression is caused by a physiological issue and may require the use of medication.
  • Assess for other issues which have caused limitations such as lack of driving or other transportation issues that may be able to be addressed.
  • Be aware of the signs and symptoms of depression and loneliness as they often occur simultaneously. There are different ways to alleviate loneliness – one can listen and observe, assist and develop a strategy to defeat seclusion; let them teach you and bridge the generation gap.


The good news is that over 80% of people diagnosed with depression can be successfully treated. More patients are currently being properly diagnosed with depression due to more open conversations about the signs and symptoms of depression with their medical providers.

If you are thinking about harming yourself, tell someone who can help immediately.

  • Do not isolate yourself.
  • Call your doctor.
  • Call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room to get immediate help, or ask a friend or family member to help you.


Call the toll-free, 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or 1-800-799-4TTY (1-800-799-4889).