Signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms of depression in older people

An older person may be depressed if, for more than two weeks, he or she has felt sad, down or miserable most of the time or has lost interest or pleasure in most of his or her usual activities, and has also experienced several of the signs and symptoms across at least three of the categories below.

Behaviours

  • General slowing down or restlessness
  • Neglect of responsibilities and self-care
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Decline in day-to-day ability to function, being confused, worried and agitated
  • Inability to find pleasure in any activity
  • Difficulty getting motivated in the morning
  • Behaving out of character
  • Denial of depressive feelings as a defence mechanism

Thoughts

  • Indecisiveness
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Persistent suicidal thoughts
  • Negative comments like 'I'm a failure, 'It's my fault' or 'Life is not worth living'
  • Excessive concerns about financial situation
  • Perceived change of status within the family

Feelings

  • Moodiness or irritability, which may present as angry or aggressive
  • Sadness, hopelessness or emptiness
  • Overwhelmed
  • Worthless, guilty

Physical symptoms

  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Slowed movement
  • Memory problems
  • Unexplained headaches, backache, pain or similar complaints
  • Digestive upsets, nausea, changes in bowel habits
  • Agitation, hand wringing, pacing
  • Loss or change of appetite
  • Significant weight loss (or gain)

It's important to note that everyone experiences some of these symptoms from time to time and it may not necessarily mean that the person is depressed. Equally, not every person who is experiencing depression will have all of these symptoms.

Additionally, older people may use different language to refer to their depression. Instead of describing 'sadness', for example, they may talk about 'their nerves'.

Depression and anxiety are different conditions, but they do share many causes and some symptoms. Learn about the signs and symptoms of anxiety.  

Dementia and depression

Depression is thought to affect 1 in 5 people experiencing dementia. 

When dementia and depression occur at the same time it may be difficult to distinguish between them because the signs and symptoms are similar. However, dementia and depression are very different conditions that require different responses and treatment, so a thorough assessment by a health professional is recommended.

In older people, both personal carers (e.g. a partner, family member or friend) and professional carers are a valuable source of information about personality or cognitive changes (e.g. memory loss) in the person and both parties should be included in healthcare discussions where possible.

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