Life Begins At 55, Depression Shouldn’t

Senior mental health

Exercise, Medication, Nutrition Keep Twilight Years Golden.

Talking about mental health can be uncomfortable for many seniors, who grew up in an era when many regarded mood problems as a sign of weakness. Fortunately, the medical community has become more proactive in offering resources and countering stigma. And treatment is improving.

It’s about time. The 55-plus group is more prone to major depression than any other demographic, according to The National Alliance on Mental Illness. The agency says depression affects 6.5 million seniors annually. Women and those with a brain disorder or in the throes of severe grief are more vulnerable.

Numbers could be higher

Many experts believe depression is like a silver tsunami among retirees, more rampant than statistics convey.  Most sufferers can’t just “snap out of it.”

“No one is quite sure, but the thinking is depression is highly under-diagnosed,” said Dr. Terri Williams, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology and Social Services at Geneva College. Williams, who studies human development and aging said, “There are no simple antidotes.  Aging is full of relentless experiences that lead to depression.  There are some interventions that precede counseling and in fact, counseling may be the last option due to access, knowledge and insurance coverage.”

High price of loneliness

Many causes contribute to depression, including social isolation, chronic illness, insomnia, pain, medication and fear of death.  Learning the signs is important. Common symptoms cited by Williams include weight loss, fatigue, unexplained pain, frequent crying, hopelessness, and irritability.

Williams said many interventions offer help, with the understanding that only a qualified clinician can diagnose and treat depression. Interventions include:

  •  Accurate diagnosis
  • Medications
  • Social support/support group
  • Counseling
  • Provide them with as much control as possible
  • Schedule outings
  • Talk with others/weekly visits
  • Carry/have significant photos
  • Make medication delivery as easy as possible
  • Identify a purpose
  • Balanced diet
  • Exercise

Fighting Depression

The good news is depression doesn’t have to be a normal part of aging; it is not inevitable.

“Depression is never considered a normal part of aging. While the more life we live, the more likely we are to experience times of sadness and grief related to loss or change, most people handle these life challenges without developing persistent depressive disorder,” said Dr. Susan Lehmann, clinical director of the geriatric psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University.

When sadness escalates to clinical depression, the disease is treatable. The right treatment may help improve a senior’s overall health and quality of life. With the right medication, patients should begin to see improvements in mood within two weeks, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Treatment options 

Medication and counseling remain the primary treatment options. Medications called antidepressants begin to work in two to four weeks. Many mental health offices offer specializations in geriatric psychiatry, with psychiatrists making weekly rounds to nursing homes to facilitate access to treatment.

One caveat: older people should be careful when starting a new medication. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, older adults have a higher risk for drug interaction, a missed dose or overdosing.

Best Medicine

One of the best antidotes for depression is physical activity. In fact, exercising three times a week can be more effective than medication in relieving depression, according to a study by researchers at Duke University Medical Center.

The Duke team studied 156 depressed patients age 50 or older for four months. Exercise consisted of 30 minutes of brisk walking three times a week. Findings showed that those who exercised experienced improvement compared to those who either took medication alone or those who combined exercise with medication. In a six-month follow-up, Duke researchers found that major depression returned for only 8 percent of patients that exercised.

“The main conclusion is that maintaining an exercise program can significantly help in reducing depression,” Duke psychologist James Blumenthal, lead researcher, said.

Overcoming the pain behind the mask

Acknowledging a problem and pursuing treatment is a first step to feeling better. The message isn’t always getting through. The American Psychological Association reports that 20 percent of Americans 55 or older suffer from a mental disorder, yet only 3 percent seek a mental health professional. ( mental health

“As America’s population ages, the need for mental and behavioral health services continues to increase,” the website reports. “Psychologists are playing a critical role in addressing these needs. Psychologists are studying and treating the mental and behavioral problems associated with growing old, such as loss of a spouse, loss of mobility and independence.”

Additional therapies

Cascade Behavioral Health in Seattle suggests several complementary therapies to treat depression. They include yoga,  acupuncture, music therapy, pet therapy, art therapy and cooking (healthy of course).

Getting help: The NIMH has many publications available for downloading at To learn more about the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health to learn more about these types of therapies:


Mary Spann

Mary Spann

Mary Spann is the founder and president of Upside of Downsizing®. In addition to her 26 years in construction, interior design, and home staging, Mary also holds college degrees in Social Work and Psychology, making her uniquely qualified to assist with the downsizing process, and helping 50 plus year olds achieve a happy and healthy life balance. Mary learned the key components of construction and interior design at an early age. Her father was a prominent custom home builder in Minnesota and Texas, and her mother was a successful interior designer and a real estate broker.
Mary Spann

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