More than feeling blue

Depression is the most common mental health problem in older people. Yet they are often reluctant to seek medical treatment for something they dismiss as ‘the blues’. What can you do to help?

Depression affects an estimated 22 per cent of men and 28 per cent of women aged over 65. But it’s often a ‘hidden’ illness and you may not realise that someone is suffering, even if you see them every day. Older people – probably more than any other age group – are likely to make light of how they feel and dismiss their condition as ‘the blues’ or ‘being down in the dumps’. The one thing they won’t call it is depression.

Why? Because for many people in their 70s, 80s or older, there is still a stigma attached to mental illness. Their life experience may have taught them that you ‘keep calm and carry on’ no matter how miserable you are feeling. They are much more comfortable with talking about physical ailments – painful hips, knees or feet, or problems with their waterworks are far easier to explain than complex and confusing emotions.

Simplyhealth, the UK’s leading provider of everyday health and dental plans, is worried about the mental health of our older generation. “So often depression goes unrecognised and untreated, even though it is reversible with therapy and/or medication. It’s everyone’s problem really and we can all do something to help. Finding out what’s causing their depression can be the first step on their road to recovery.”


Depression can be triggered by any number of different causes – or there may be no apparent reason for it at all. In later life, some of the most common triggers are the saddest. Bereavement, especially loss of a partner of many years, can be particularly difficult. For the one left behind it can seem a very long time before there is any light at end of the tunnel. Loneliness and social isolation, both very real problems in areas with a transient population or little sense of community, can lead to serious depression for many older people.

While the ‘freedom’ of retirement is a joy for many, for others it represents a loss – of status, income, identity or sense of purpose, which they find hard to cope with. And then there’s the particular issues associated with ageing - physical illness, loss of mobility, restricted income, reduced independence and increased reliance on others. Depression can also be a side-effect of some medications commonly prescribed for conditions associated with getting older, such as dementia.

What can you do to help? Simplyhealth says: “There are many ways we can help someone we love get over depression. A lot depends on what has triggered it in the first place. Don’t give up if nothing works immediately. You’ll need lots of patience and understanding because depression isn’t something that disappears overnight. It can help to remember that with the right help many people recover well from a period of ‘the blues’.”

5 top tips for helping an older person recover from depression

  1. Persuade them to seek medical help. Their GP will recommend appropriate treatment, whether that’s medication or counselling, or a mixture of both.
  2. Visit or call as often as you can. A daily phone can be a lifeline for someone who is very lonely. Or ask them to give you a hand with essential household tasks or babysitting – it can give them a sense of being important and needed.
  3. Friends are essential. Take them out to see their friends as much as you can, or arrange a coffee morning or afternoon tea at home.
  4. Exercise – a daily walk in the park, swimming, tai chi and yoga are all great mood-boosting activities. If you can go with them, you’ll both benefit.
  5. Volunteering is ideal for social contact and volunteer groups value the dedication and maturity of older people. There are likely to be a wide variety of volunteering opportunities close by.

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