Family members and even primary healthcare providers often mistake an older adult’s symptoms of depression as just a natural reaction to illness or an unavoidable part of the aging process. Older adults themselves often share this belief and suffer unnecessarily because they don’t understand that they could feel better with appropriate treatment.
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Recent data indicate that an estimated 20.4 percent of adults aged 65 and older met criteria for a mental disorder. (Karel, Gatz & Smyer, 2012). The CDC’s 2013 report on The State of Aging and Health in America identified “addressing mental distress among older adults” as one of its primary Calls To Action needed to improve the health and well-being of older adults. The CDC estimates: About 25% of adults aged 65 years or older have some type of mental health problem, such as a mood disorder not associated with normal aging. Mental distress is a problem by itself, and it has been associated with unhealthy behaviors than can interfere with self-management and inhibit recovery from an illness.
How Can we Help Change these Statistics?
Talking to seniors about their mental health can be challenging. Family members, caregivers, and even many medical professionals are not trained to assess mental disorders. Conversations can be awkward. Seniors are often reluctant to talk about their symptoms.
The most common mental disorder among older adults is depression. Depression, once diagnosed, often responds quickly to treatment. Most older adults with depression improve when they receive treatment with an antidepressant, psychotherapy, or a combination of both. If left untreated, however, depression may result in the onset of physical, cognitive, functional, and social impairment, as well as decreased quality of life.
If you suspect an older adult has depression, there is an easy, direct way to talk with them about their symptoms. The Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS) is a reliable 15-question assessment that anyone can use. Ask the senior to answer the following questions:
Geriatric Depression Scale: Short Form
Choose the best answer for how you have felt over the past week:
1. Are you basically satisfied with your life? YES / NO
2. Have you dropped many of your activities and interests? YES / NO
3. Do you feel that your life is empty? YES / NO
4. Do you often get bored? YES / NO
5. Are you in good spirits most of the time? YES / NO
6. Are you afraid that something bad is going to happen to you? YES / NO
7. Do you feel happy most of the time? YES / NO
8. Do you often feel helpless? YES / NO
9. Do you prefer to stay at home, rather than going out and doing new things? YES / NO
10. Do you feel you have more problems with memory than most? YES / NO
11. Do you think it is wonderful to be alive now? YES / NO
12. Do you feel pretty worthless the way you are now? YES / NO
13. Do you feel full of energy? YES / NO
14. Do you feel that your situation is hopeless? YES / NO
15. Do you think that most people are better off than you are? YES / NO
Answers in bold indicate depression. Score 1 point for each bolded answer.
A score > 5 points is suggestive of depression.
A score ≥ 10 points is almost always indicative of depression.
This scale is in the public domain.
Any score greater than 5 warrants a follow-up assessment by a medical professional. If your senior scores higher than 5, help them schedule an appointment to discuss the results and form a treatment plan with a healthcare provider.
If you or someone you care about is in crisis, please seek help immediately using one of the following methods:
- Call 911
- Visit a nearby emergency department or your health care provider’s office
- Call the toll-free, 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255); TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (4889) to talk to a trained counselor
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The State of Aging and Health in America 2013. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Dept of Health and Human Services; 2013.
Karel, M. J., Gatz, M. & Smyer, M. A. (2012). Aging and mental health in the decade ahead: What psychologists need to know. American Psychologist, 67, 184-198.
Lyness JM, Noel T, Cox C, King DA, Conwell Y, Caine ED. Screening for Depression in Elderly Primary Care Patients: A Comparison of the Center for Epidemiologic Studies—Depression Scale and the Geriatric Depression Scale. Arch Intern Med. 1997;157(4):449-454. doi:10.1001/archinte.1997.00440250107012.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National
Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health. (2015).
Depression (NIH Publication No. 15-3561). Bethesda, MD: U.S.
Government Printing Office.