Issues Facing Vulnerable Adults

Everyone feels sad or blue sometimes. But when sadness persists and interferes with everyday life, it may be depression. Very treatable, depression affects about 15 out of every 100 adults over age 65.

How to Recognize Depression

Recognizing depression in the elderly and people with disabilities is not always easy. Vulnerable adults with depression may not know how to explain how they feel. They also may fear that they will be labeled as crazy or as having character weakness. Vulnerable adults and their families may dismiss depression as a passing mood.

Common Symptoms
Symptoms may include persistent sadness, feeling slowed down, excessive worries about finances or health, frequent tearfulness, weight changes, pacing and fidgeting, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating, and physical symptoms such as pain or gastrointestinal problems.

Since depression is commonly due to biological changes in the brain, it is likely to occur for no apparent reason. Biological changes to the brain and body, medical illnesses, or genetics may put groups like elderly people at greater risk of depression. A specific event like retirement or the loss of a partner or loved one may lead to depression--it is normal to grieve over such events, but if the grief persists, it may be a sign of depression. Illnesses such as cancer, Parkinson's disease, heart disease, stroke or Alzheimer's disease may cause late-life depression. These diseases may also hide symptoms of depression.

Suicide and Depression
Suicide is more common in older people than in any other age group. The population of people older than age 65 accounts for 25% of the nation's suicides. Suicidal attempts or serious thoughts about suicide should be taken seriously and evaluated by trained mental health staff.

Most people can improve dramatically with treatment, which may include psychotherapy, antidepressant medications, and other procedures. Psychotherapy can play an important role with or without medications. There are many forms of short-term therapy (10 to 20 weeks) that have proven to be effective. Antidepressants help restore the balance and supply of neurotransmitters in the brain. Mixing doses, taking the wrong amount, or suddenly stopping antidepressants may result in negative effects.

Caring for a Person with Depression
The first step is to make sure the person gets a complete physical checkup because depression may be a side effect of another medical condition. If the person is confused or withdrawn, accompany the person to the doctor, or where possible, arrange for an in-home assessment. The doctor may refer the person to a psychiatrist. If the person is reluctant to see a psychiatrist, try to assure the person that an evaluation is necessary to determine what treatment is needed. Other approaches would be to reduce the person’s isolation by helping them to get involved with church activities, the local senior center or other community forums.