Depression in Older Adults

Dr. Donna L. Roberts
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Although research does not indicate an increased incidence of depression in older adults, many of the life challenges faced at this age can contribute to or exacerbate the subjective symptoms associated with this mood disorder and/or impede attempts at therapeutic intervention (Santrock, 2002; Callahan & Wolinsky, 1995). Life experiences common to this developmental stage, including loss of friends and loved ones, failing health, lack of social support, and a decreased capacity for independent living can contribute to and magnify feelings of depression and even suicidal tendencies. Studies indicate that a therapeutic program which combines medication and psychotherapy is effective treatment for depression in older adults in the large majority of cases (Keonig & Blazer, 1996).

As such, intervention with a depressed older adult should first include a complete medical examination and drug therapy assessment, to help alleviate the physiological causes and symptoms of the depression. Subsequently, a program of supportive psychotherapy should include advocacy and outreach components which put the individual in contact with appropriate social resources to ease stresses of everyday life (i.e., household help, assistance with errands, meal programs, social activities, support groups, etc.) as well as more traditional therapeutic interventions (i.e., cognitive-behavioral therapy, client-centered approaches).

With regard to stress, many psychological responses, including aspects of depression involve a combination of external events and the internal cognitive and physiological response mechanisms (Whitbourne, 2000; Birren & Schaie, 2001; Santrock, 2002; Hoyer, Roodin, Rybash & Rybash, 2002). Research has shown that older adults who are given more responsibility for and control over decisions that affect their lives report higher levels of life satisfaction, happiness, activity levels and even overall health (Rodin & Langer, 1977; Schulz, 1976). This is consistent with the general research on locus of control and self-efficacy (Carlson, Matin & Buskist, 2004; Manstead & Hewstone, 1996).
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Thus, giving older adults the highest possible degree of autonomy can contribute to their psychological well-being. This is possible even in the most restrictive of environments (i.e., nursing homes) where patients can be given at least some control over aspects of their schedules, diet, health care regimen, visitors and activities.


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Carlson, N. R., Martin, G. N. & Buskist, W. (2004). Psychology, 2e. New York, NY: Pearson.

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Koenig, H. G., & Blazer, D. G. III. (1996). Minor depression in late life. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 4(4, Suppl 1), S14–S21.

Manstead, A. S. R. & Hewstone, M. (Eds.). (1996). The Blackwell encyclopedia of social psychology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Rodin, J. & Langer, E. J. (1977). Long-term effects of a control-relevant intervention with the institutionalized aged. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 397-402.

Santrock, J. W. (2002). Life-span development, 8e. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Schultz, R. (1976). Effects of control and predictability on the physical and psychological well-being of the institutionalized aged. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 563-573.

Whitbourne, S. K. (2000). Adult development and aging: Biopsychosocial perspectives. New York, NY: Wiley.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.


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