Ageism and Depression

How many of you believe that you are age sensitive?

Why do I talk about ageism and depression in the same article —– because ageism contributes to depression in older adults. To combat ageism at large and age discrimination in the workplace, some myths about older people must be dispelled. 74-year-old Erdman Palmore, professor emeritus at Duke University, has spent a lifetime studying aging and fighting ageism, and he is still at it.

(Becca Levy-Yale School of Public Health in 2009) has also studied the effects of ageism on older individuals and her research has found that those who are presented with negative stereotypes of aging over time experience a decline in memory performance and a heightened cardiovascular response to stress.

So when we categorize a person or stereotype them as demented, senile, old fashioned, rigid, sexless and child-like, we are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When we support negative stereotypes of older adults, we are providing a disservice to our clients and encouraging the continued negative image of older adults.

Ageism is no different than mistreating or judging someone because of the color of their skin, their gender, their sexual orientation or their religion. It is putting a group of people into a category based on a characteristic and we all know every person is unique.

It makes them believe they can’t do what they thought they could because of their age. How many times have you heard an older adult say, “I am too old for that”

And most importantly for this discussion, negative stereotypes contribute to depression!

  1. Over 79 million or 1 in 4 adults suffer from depression in the United States (319M in US). (NAMI – Nat’l Alliance on Mental Illness)
  2. Yet, 68% of Americans over 65 know little or nothing about depression.
  3. 19% of persons over 60 living in the community suffer from depression.
  4. 25% of nursing home residents have a diagnosis of depression.  It is probably a much higher number that are suffering from depression. Some studies on isolated, home-bound older adults or those in nursing homes are as high as 73-90%. (Bruce, M.L., (2002) Major Depression in elderly home health care patients. American Journal of Psychiatry 159:1367-1374.

Many older adults do not seek treatment because of the stigma of mental illness, they don’t know about treatment options or they are not aware that what they have is depression because they have never been asked about how they are feeling emotionally.

Symptoms of depression can include: sadness, tearfulness, irritability, loss of interest in usual activities, inability to concentrate, appetite changes, disrupted sleep or sleeping more than usual, changes in eating habits, frequent headaches, negative self-talk and fatigue to name a few. The key is what is an abnormal feeling for you and should send up a red flag!

5 or more of these symptoms lasting longer than two weeks should be cause for concern.

Possible causes of depression: family history, menopause, chronic illness, medications, alcohol use, personal losses, financial losses, and negative daily news events. Depression can immediately follow a stressful event or it can develop gradually over a period of months.

It is not a sign of being weak, defective or “crazy”.

Treatment comes in many forms,  non-traditional treatments that can be considered and can work especially well with older adults when they are apprehensive about traditional treatments. Together the doctor and client or patient should talk about what the person wants to accomplish in treating the depression.

  1. If healing from the loss of a loved one or spouse, counseling may help put things in perspective. Expectations may be too high, you can’t put 40-50-60 years away in a box after 3 days.
  2. Emphasize the importance of telling the doctor about all medications they are currently taking (prescription and over the counter as well as herbal supplements),
  3. a combination of both, counseling and medications, often medication is short-term.
  4. St John’s Wort, if tried should be time-limited and checked out with your doctor, it can be contraindicated with some medications.
  5. Balanced meals and specific supplements. It is common for people to use food to affect moods, which produce artificial peaks and valleys (chocolate, sweets, caffeine, and refined sugars). Depressed persons should eat a low-fat diet with lots of fiber and B vitamins
  6. Exercise is known to counteract depression. The brain produces endorphins (the feel good chemical) that helps combat depression and elevate mood.
  7. Massage can provide some of the same benefits as exercise and has a nurturing component that can nourish the emotions. Especially with older adults who may not have a partner or family member that touches them. The human body has the need to touch and be touched
  8. Meditation or yoga can calm the mind and help lift you out of the blues
  9. Remember: “Happiness is less about getting what we want rather than wanting what we have”

For further information on Ageism and Older Adult Depression, please contact me at or 248-434.8227.

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