It is difficult to distinguish between grief and depression in an individual. It's even more difficult with aging adults since there are many other changes taking place at the time of diagnosis.
That being said, it's extremely important to understand the differences between grief and depression in aging adults. Although both grief and depression are often treated similarly, the course of action is not the same for both. It's easy to overlook depression in the elderly or chalk it up to a natural flow of events. But the truth is that depression is as much of a disease as diabetes and can be treated if properly diagnosed.
How do we experience grief and depression differently? To put it simply, grief often rides like a wave: A grieving person can usually find moments of levity inside the darkness, something to spur a smile or a moment of joy. Depression, however, often feels like being buried in a dark hole where no light comes through for extended periods of time. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, depression in the elderly affects about 7 million Americans age 65 and older.
Even though the use of antidepressants can be helpful in treating depression, the importance of differential diagnosis between depression and grief shines bright. If an aging adult is not actually depressed, but rather grieving the many losses that accompany moving to a nursing home (for example), the antidepressants could have an adverse affect and take away from a healthy grieving process. This makes a proper diagnosis and treatment plan that much more significant, and it's important to be able to distinguish between the symptoms of both.
Signs of Depression in the Aging Adults (Symptoms Present for at Least Two Weeks):
- Fantasizing or speaking of suicide (known as Suicidal Ideation)
- Frequent anxiety and irritability
- Constant feelings of emptiness
- Feeling hopeless or helpless
- Issues with concentration or memory problems
- Social withdrawals
- Vague complaints of physical pain
- Significant shifts in sleep, habits, mood, energy, food consumption, or interaction with hobbies that previously brought joy
Signs of Grief in Aging Adults:
- Recent or upcoming loss
- Sadness about changes/loss
- Fatigue or low energy
- Temporary loss of appetite
- Moments of pleasure and happiness amid the grief
*Each individual grieves differently, and an individual will have a different experience with the grief process for different losses throughout their life.*
Aging adults can experience many benefits from becoming involved in their communities, which can help with feelings of grief and depression. Most local senior centers, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes have daily or weekly social events that are free. These create an opportunity for seniors to meet new people, participate in an engaging activity, and potentially find other people who may be experiencing similar struggles!
Written By: Care Manager - Kelly Foster, LPN, CM