Turning depression in joy. What to do if you are sad.

Of the 34 million Americans age 65 and older, nearly six million suffer from some form of depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Unfortunately, symptoms of depression in the elderly are often overlooked because they may coincide with many medical conditions or life experiences, seniors — more than any other age group — are often reluctant to admit they have a problem with depression and often try to keep their symptoms to themselves. That reluctance is a big reason why only about 10 percent of those six million seniors receive treatment for depression.

Depression is not a normal part of the aging process. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health considers it serious health problem, since it can increase a person’s risk of suicide, heart disease, stroke and other diseases. The good news is that depression can be diagnosed and treated.

Since holiday time can make symptoms of clinical depression more acute, let’s take a look at what clinical depression is, what are its warning signs and, finally, what you can do to help yourself or a loved one who is experiencing depression.

Most importantly, do not dismiss depression as just part of getting older. With support and appropriate management, you or your loved one can get back to living life to the fullest.

What is clinical depression?

Most of us have periods when we feel more “down” or “blue” than other times. Most of the time, however, we bounce back in a day or two. If the depression follows a traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one, it may take longer and the feelings of depression may come back at certain times in an ebb and flow pattern.

Clinical depression, however, is a severe form of depression that, according to the American Psychiatric Association, reveals some or all of the following warning signs daily over the course of a two-week period or longer:

Sad, empty or tearful mood

Reduced interest in normal activities

Decreased or increased appetite

Unintentional noticeable weight loss or weight gain

Inability to sleep or increased desire to sleep

Restlessness or anxiousness

Lack of energy

Feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate Guilt

Trouble concentrating or remembering details

Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide

Unaccounted for aches and pains

How can you get help for yourself or some you love?

If you or a loved one is experiencing these symptoms for two weeks or more, it is time to see your doctor. A medical professional will perform a complete examination to rule out any underlying causes, such as a reaction to a new prescription.

If your doctor diagnoses clinical depression, he or she will work with you to design an appropriate course of treatment. Your doctor may refer you to another professional who is specially trained to treat depression in older adults.

What are ways you can help someone who is depressed, particularly if it is a milder form of depression? The holidays are often painful for seniors, especially for those who have suffered the loss of close family members.

After considering appropriate medical treatment, here are a few tangible ways you can help:

Spend time with the person, carefully listening to his or her concerns.

Offer patience, support and encouragement.

Invite the person to attend outings and activities with you. Even a simple walk may help.

If things seem overwhelming, encourage your loved one to break down daily tasks into small, manageable steps.

Take talks of suicide seriously.  For more information, call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK to speak with a trained counselor.

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