Depression – not just a young person’s illness

old man with depression

For many older people, the topic of depression is one that’s rarely, if ever, raised. Mental health care probably consisted of a diet of clichés like, “Toughen up, princess” or “Pull yourself together!”

For some, such ‘kick up the bum’ tactics might have been enough. In which case, there’s a fair chance you probably didn’t have what would today be diagnosed as clinical depression.

Thankfully, younger generations of Australians have been brought up to recognise depression for what it is: an illness, usually treatable.

However, many older Australians still believe the misconception that depression is a sign of weakness. That notion could lead to unfair treatment of those close to them. Or, if they themselves are suffering from, or at risk of, depression, not seeking treatment for themselves.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

In the US, May marked National Mental Health Awareness Month. That coincided with Mental Awareness Week in the UK from 15-21 May. A quick look at the Australian government’s Mental Health Commission calendar reveals no such May equivalent here.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t use international events to make things better in Australia. There are a number of things you can do to help older people you know who are showing signs of depression.

Recognising and acknowledging depression

Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US paint a concerning picture. The CDC estimates that depression affects more than seven million of the 35 million Americans aged 65 years or older. That’s more than 20 per cent.

In Australia, it’s thought that 10 to 15 per cent of older people experience depression, according to Beyond Blue. Such numbers may appear slightly more reassuring on the surface, but there’s a sting in the tail. Rates of depression among people living in residential aged care are believed to be much higher, sitting at around 35 per cent.

Regardless of the overall numbers, anyone who has depression needs help.

Dr Lisa M. Brown, a licensed clinical psychologist and specialist in geropsychology, emphasises this point. “Getting a family member or a close friend who is an older adult to seek and use mental health help can be a challenging task, especially when it comes to dealing with depression,” she says.

How can you help?

Dr Brown recently delivered an online seminar, Depression and Older Adults: Is it Just the Blues or Is Help Needed? Her presentation included a tip sheet that could prove useful for those with an older loved one who may be suffering.

Six tips are provided as a starting point:

  1. start by having an open conversation
  2. explain that depression is a treatable illness
  3. help them overcome barriers to treatment
  4. promote social activity
  5. encourage physical activity
  6. provide ongoing support.

These steps may seem basic but can serve as a useful first stop for those not sure where to begin. They are expanded on in more detail here.

As someone who has been diagnosed with clinical depression myself, I know its potential to be debilitating. An adolescent who was encouraged to “toughen up”, I know now, as a 50-something man, it’s not necessarily so simple.

If someone close to you is showing signs of depression, try to start that conversation. It could be just the opening to better mental health they’ve been looking for.

Have you or an older loved one been affected by depression? How have you handled the situation? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also read: Menopause affecting your mental health? Experts reveal what to do

Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Written by Andrew Gigacz

Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.

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  1. I have been diagnosed with depression and do find it a battle. Being 69 I think I deal with it better now I am older. Social connection and making sure I fit physical activity in my day, as listed above, do work. This includes making myself do either when every part of me fights against it. Its like moving through quicksand but If I get myself out of bed and out the door, and nothing else – even if it’s just in the supermarket with people around me but not speaking to them, or wandering around in my garden but not gardening – I notice a bit of a shift inside and when I go back inside into a slump, after a minutes, I get up again. I don’ t really feel any better, and not sure how it works, but it seems to change the direction of my mood, stopping the downhill slide into something worse. Otherwise, I resist medication after having tried it and finding the sensation of my mind changing disturbing and a bit scary. Add though I’m seeing someone for advice, again, I feel like I am being talked at rather than listened to, repeat- again. I try very hard to engage fully and I know it works for others, but leaving birth family trauma out of it (‘we don’t like to revisit the past’) and pushing mind altering treatments like drugs or EMDR combined with failure to recognise my need to be active, or feel heard, in my own treatment means it end up being a waste of both out time as it results in me losing that connection and trust needed for the ‘help’ I know they think, and want, to give me, to work. But something I already do and that I have been am blocked from sharing with psychologists I have been with, does. I have a mental health journal, and can recognise some of my own triggers and that has been hugely useful. Just the act of writing that bought those things to light, things I knew to be true but had not recognised as part of who I am has been healing. I also read psychological articles and books, actively searching for understanding, and incl inner responses to the readings in the journal, because I find some parts of myself in what I read, other times not. Attempts at selk knowledge is huge and I would add it as being as important as making myself get up and out of my front door or physical exercise. Drugs, mind altering treatments and speaking to others work for some, but not all and have not me though i have tried. I need help that comes from sharing, not sitting quietly taking advice as if it is gospel, no matter how well meant.

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