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Mental Illness and Older Adults

By Kay King, Program Director for Older Adults Living with Mental Illness, NAMI Minnesota

Depression is an epidemic in this country. Pain and sadness don’t keep you from functioning. Depression does.
Dr. Janet Taylor

In April, I spoke about depression at a monthly wellness program for seniors. After my hour was up, a participant in her 80s pushed her walker close to me and said, “Thank you for coming. Now I know what my father lived with.” What a relief it must have been for her to identify his problem and to talk openly about an illness that had long affected her and her family’s lives.

I give talks about mental illness a lot. Invariably when the talk is over, someone approaches me about a concern they have with a family member or friend who has a mental illness, but rarely is that family member or friend over the age of 65. I was heartened when the participant in the wellness program came forward.

We somehow believe that the symptoms of depression in older adults are normal. As an older adult, you may experience the loss of your friends or your spouse or partner. You may move out of your long-time family home, which holds many memories. You might lose your hearing or your sight, or you may have chronic pain. You might lose your independence and be frustrated with your inability to do the things you used to do. Who wouldn’t be sad!

We are all sad at one time or another. But sadness — when it is intense or is felt for a long period of time — may be depression. When it interferes with continued on page 3 your ability to get along with others or to carry out the activities of everyday life, then the sadness may be depression.

Depression and anxiety are not a normal part of aging; yet, family members and medical professionals often do not recognize or diagnose those symptoms. They are often mistaken for dementia or problems with reasoning or judgment. Symptoms might include a disruption in sleeping or eating habits, deep sadness, withdrawal from activities that were once enjoyable, cutting yourself off from friends or family, or unexplained stomach pains.

Depression is very common. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that one in four adults has a mental illness, the most common ones being depression and anxiety. Mental illness affects everyone — every age, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and level of income. Depression often accompanies other illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, strokes, Parkinson’s, thyroid disorder, and arthritis. Some medications produce depression as a side effect.

It’s important to understand that these illnesses are biological ones that affect our brain. We understand that Alzheimer’s is an illness that affects the brain, and depression is no different. Depression is not the result of personal weakness, lack of character, or poor upbringing. It is a real illness, an illness that can be treated.

If you or someone you know is experiencing the symptoms of depression, the first step is to talk to your doctor. You want to be sure to rule out other illnesses. Once a doctor diagnoses the illness, it is important to develop a treatment plan. This plan could include medication and therapy. Other actions that are known to help include exercising, avoiding alcohol, following a good diet, minimizing stress, helping someone else, getting adequate sleep, and even practicing yoga or meditation. Getting out and being with people or being part of a support group can be very helpful.

Treatment of depression is very effective. From 70 to 90 percent of individuals experience a significant reduction in symptoms and an improved quality of life. Without treatment people’s symptoms worsen; and loss of life — through suicide — is high among older adults.

If you have questions or want to learn more, the following organizations can help:

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) at For information on classes and support groups, see or call 651-645-2948 or 1-888-626-4435
  • The Senior LinkAge Line at or 1-800-333-2433. Contact them if you are concerned about the mental health of an older person you know or if you have questions about your own mental health.
  • The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) at




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