Depression and Aging (cont.)

If you are a family member, friend, or health care provider of an older person, watch carefully for clues of depression. Sometimes symptoms can hide behind a smiling face. A depressed person who lives alone may appear to feel better when someone stops by to say hello. The symptoms may seem to go away. But, when someone is very depressed, the symptoms usually come back.

Don't ignore the warning signs. If left untreated, serious depression can lead to suicide. Listen carefully if someone of any age complains about being depressed or says people don't care. That person may really be asking for help.

Getting Help

The first step is to accept that you or your family member needs help. You may not be comfortable with the subject of depression and mental illness. Or, you might feel that asking for help is a sign of weakness. You might be like many older people, their relatives, or friends, who believe that a depressed person can quickly "snap out of it" or that some people are too old to be helped. This is wrong.

A health care provider can help. Once you decide to get medical advice, start with your family doctor. The doctor should check to see if your depression could be caused by a health problem (such as hypothyroidism or vitamin B12 deficiency) or a medicine you are taking. After a complete exam, your doctor may suggest you talk to a mental health worker, such as a social worker, mental health counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Doctors specially trained to treat depression in older people are called geriatric psychiatrists.

Don't avoid getting help because you may be afraid of how much treatment might cost. Often, only short-term psychotherapy (talk therapy) is needed. It is usually covered by insurance. Also, some community mental health centers may offer treatment based on a person's ability to pay.

Be aware that some family doctors may not understand about aging and depression. If your doctor is unable or unwilling to help, you may want to talk to another health care provider.

Are you the relative or friend of a depressed older person who won't go to a doctor for treatment? Try explaining how treatment may help the person feel better. In some cases, when a depressed person can't or won't go to the doctor's office, the doctor or mental health expert can start by making a phone call. A telephone call can't take the place of the personal contact needed for a complete medical checkup, but it might encourage the person to go for treatment.

Treating Depression

Your doctor or mental health expert can often treat your depression successfully. Different therapies seem to work for different people. For instance, support groups can provide new coping skills or social support if you are dealing with a major life change. A doctor might suggest that you go to a local senior center, volunteer service, or nutrition program.