While those working to raise awareness of depression in older Australians acknowledge that some symptoms can commonly be mistaken for ‘simply growing old’, they are also highlighting the need for greater education, understanding, prevention and support of older people who are living with or at risk of depression.
Clinical Advisor beyondblue Dr Stephen Carbone says it is important to understand that depression is not a normal part of ageing and that it is a condition, a health problem, affecting people and some more commonly than others.
“People can confuse changes of ageing with depression and brush off issues putting it down to them getting old,” Dr Carbone says.
“Different surveys show different figures but on average 5-10 percent of those aged 65+ are likely to experience depression.
“It is also interesting and important to point out that people living in aged care have higher rates than this - something like 30-50 percent - depending on the survey.”
He explains that there are a number of age/time of life related reasons and causes that can lead to depression among older Australians and that a number of symptoms of depression can be misinterpreted as signs of ageing.
“It is important for us to promote everyone’s mental wellbeing and for everyone to be aware that depression can happen at any stage of life, to realise that it exists and to be on the lookout for it,” Dr Carbone says.
“Symptoms of depression that are put down to ageing can be: a loss of interest in life, not being as mentally alert - which is often mistaken for dementia or cognitive decline, and being less physically active - which is commonly put down to frailty.”
He adds that with older people often going to the doctor to check their blood pressure or the like, that it’s important to ask how they are feeling because quality of life is important for everyone.
“Transitioning into aged care is stressful but there are also a subgroup of older Australians with higher needs who are more likely to have significant health problems and loss of independence which are all factors,” he says.
“Things that can affect older people are grief and loss and changes in life; the act of giving up their home and moving into aged care; financial stress from not being able to save up enough and living on a pension; unstable housing; and not to mention loneliness and social isolation.”
Another contributing factor to depression in older people, according to both Dr Carbone and Director Celebrate Ageing Dr Catherine Barrett, is ageism.
Both say older people often feel undervalued and “pushed aside” with Dr Carbone stating that valuing older people is a big way to prevent depression.
Dr Barrett has also voiced the need to end ageism in order to address the depression in older people saying that it is something she has noticed and is “absolutely aware of”.
“The fact that we are an ageist society means older people become isolated and isolation comes when older communities don’t engage with others,” Dr Barrett explains.
“As Minister for Aged Care Ken Wyatt shared with the National Press Conference a few months ago - 40 percent of older people in aged care receive no visitors during the year - that fact alone says something about ageism.”
When it comes to prevent dementia among older Australians, Dr Carbone says there are a number of preventative measures that can help reduce the risks of depression among older Australians.
“To prevent it, there needs to be a sufficient income, a roof over their heads, and a sense of value among older people,” he explains.
“We need to recognise the ongoing contributions of many older people - from volunteering, to looking after the grandkids - as they age they take on different role and responsibilities that are encouraging them to stay physically and mentally active.
“It’s important for older people to be around others, to talk and have fun, to do things - it’s important.”
Dr Barrett has also echoed Dr Carbone in the importance of quality of life and has called for greater education saying it could be “really helpful”.
“Both better clinical and community education are needed, as well as education for older people, to know that it is not a normal part of ageing is needed,” she says.
“There is a sense of ‘that’s how it is’ and I don’t think we are talking enough with older people about how they are feeling and what they want and engaging with them that way.
“We need a multi pronged strategy of educating older people that it’s not normal and if they are feeling depressed that they need to talk to someone.
“Another part of the strategy is educating the community on what to look for as well as talking to health practitioners and aged care providers so they understand best practice management of depression.
“It is also really important for family members and service providers to understand - beyondblue have some fantastic information about older people and depression.”
Dr Carbone says the beyondblue resources are available for individuals and people in contact or working with older Australians in the form of online self learning programs that can help in making those working or volunteering in aged care more confident and more able to support older people with depression.