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Depression and Suicide in Older Adults

Nearly 2 million older Americans have some type of depression. Some of them even take their own lives. Yet depression among older adults is often ignored. Learn the warning signs. You may help spare a loved one needless pain. You may also save a life.

What is depression?

Depression is a common and serious illness that affects the way you think and feel. It is not a normal part of aging, nor is it a sign of weakness, a character flaw, or something you can snap out of. Most people with depression need treatment to get better. The most common symptom is a feeling of deep sadness. People who are depressed also may seem tired and listless. And nothing seems to give them pleasure. It’s normal to grieve or be sad sometimes. But sadness lessens or passes with time. Depression rarely goes away or improves on its own. A person with clinical depression can't "snap out of it." Other symptoms of depression are:

  • Sleeping more or less than normal

  • Eating more or less than normal

  • Having headaches, stomachaches, or other pains that don’t go away

  • Feeling nervous, “empty,” or worthless

  • Crying a great deal

  • Thinking or talking about suicide or death

  • Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed

  • Social isolation

  • Feeling confused or forgetful

What causes it?

The causes of depression aren’t fully known. But it is thought to result from a complex blend of these factors:

  • Biochemistry. Certain chemicals in the brain play a role.

  • Genes. Depression does run in families.

  • Life stress. Life stresses can also trigger depression in some people. Older adults often face many stressors, such as death of friends or a spouse, health problems, and financial concerns.

  • Chronic conditions. This includes conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. These can cause symptoms of depression. Medicine side effects can cause changes in thoughts and behaviors.

How you can help

Two women sitting outdoors talking.

Often, depressed people may not want to ask for help. When they do, they may be ignored. Or, they may receive the wrong treatment. You can help by showing parents and older friends love and support. If they seem depressed, don’t lecture the person, ignore the symptoms, or discount the symptoms as a “normal” part of aging –which they are not. Get involved, listen, and show interest and support.

Help them understand that depression is a treatable illness. Tell them you can help them find the right treatment. Offer to go to their healthcare provider's appointment with them for support when the symptoms are discussed. With their approval, contact a local mental health center, social service agency, or hospital about services.

You can be an advocate for him or her at healthcare appointments. Many older adults have chronic illnesses that can cause symptoms of depression. Medicine side effects can change thoughts and behaviors. You can help make sure that the healthcare provider looks at all of these factors. He or she should refer your family member or friend to a mental healthcare provider when needed. in some cases, untreated depression can lead to a misdiagnosis. A person may be diagnosed with a brain disorder such as dementia. If the healthcare provider does not take the issue of depression seriously, help your family member or friend to find another provider.

Don't be afraid to ask

If you think an older person you care about could be suicidal, ask, “Have you thought about suicide?” Most people will tell you the truth. If they say “yes,” they may already have a plan for how and when they will attempt it. Find out as much as you can. The more detailed the plan, and the easier it is to carry out, the more danger the person is in right now. Tell the person you are there for them and do not want them to harm him or herself. Don't wait to get help for the person. Call the person's healthcare provider, local hospital, or emergency services.

To learn more

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (crisis hotline)

    800-273-TALK (800-273-8255)

  • National Institute of Mental Health


  • National Alliance on Mental Illness


  • Mental Health America


  • National Suicide Hotline

    800-SUICIDE (800-784-2433)

Call 911

Never leave the person alone. A person who is actively suicidal needs psychiatric care right away. They will need constant supervision. Never leave the person out of sight. Call 911 or the national 24-hour suicide crisis hotline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255). You can also take the person to the closest emergency room.

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Paul Ballas MD
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2020
© 2000-2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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