Health & Wellness

Depression in Seniors: Finding Solutions

As many as 10% of seniors live with clinical depression—and it’s harder to treat as we get older


By Katrina Caruso

Depression can lead to memory loss and dementia, and dementia can bring on depression. Left untreated, depression may worsen the effects of a stroke or heart disease. Clearly, treating depression in older patients is important, but it also presents special challenges.

Older bodies react differently to different medications, so it may take time, and trial and error, to find the right drug. Older people may be taking a number of medications, and the danger of drugs interacting makes it hard to prescribe the right drug to treat depression. Older patients don’t always take all the medications they need to and may assign a low priority to their antidepressants.

Dr. Alistair Flint, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Toronto, is a member of the research team behind a study called OPTIMUM, which will look into difficult-to-treat depression in older adults. Scientists in Canada and the United States will be evaluating the effectiveness of two treatment approaches: switching medications or adding a second drug to a patient’s treatment. The study is expected to involve 1,500 seniors and to last five years. If you or someone you know might benefit from being a part of the study, you can find out more and learn how to volunteer at

The results of another new study, recently published in CMAJ, showed that more coordination between doctors, putting less pressure on the patient, can help to ease depressive symptoms, especially when other health issues are in play, suggesting that this should become a more common approach in the treatment of depression.

Are you suffering from depression?
It’s important to know the early signs of depression—and to know that if you’re experiencing these symptoms, you’re not alone. Depression can take many forms, and different people may exhibit different symptoms, so the condition can be difficult to assess. Sometimes, grief and depression will get conflated, as will early forms of dementia and depression. There are also many medical conditions that may trigger depression in seniors, such as Parkinson’s, thyroid disorders, diabetes, and cancer. Loneliness, isolation, purposelessness, and bereavement can all bring on depressive episodes.

Depression isn’t just a deep sadness: it can affect energy levels, digestion, appetite, sleep, thinking (problems with decision-making, confusion, and even suicidal ideation), and more.

If you’re concerned that you or a loved one may be depressed, consider these questions:

Do you no longer get excited about activities that once brought joy?

Do you feel helpless or hopeless?

Does getting through the day, doing even small tasks, feel overwhelming and difficult?

If you answered yes to all three questions, it may be time to see a doctor and get the support you need. You’re not alone: according to the Mood Disorders Society of Canada, 5% to 10% of Canadians in their later years will experience depression, and the rate jumps to 30% to 40% for those in institutions.

To learn more about depression in seniors, read this helpful guide.

Photo: iStock/michaeljung.