By: Dr. Nicole Ruggiano
May is mental health awareness month! One common mental health challenge that people living with dementia face is depression. Depression is a common condition for adults and can range in severity and duration. While depression is common among all adults, older adults with dementia are at greater risk of developing depression. According to the Alzheimer's Association, up to 40% of people with Alzheimer's disease will experience significant depression. This can cause stress for caregivers, who may not understand why their loved one has become depressed, not know what to do, and may even feel guilty that their loved one is suffering. Many often ask how to assess whether their loved one is depressed and what they can do to help them.
What causes depression?
Depression can be caused by a number of things, which is why talking to a healthcare provider is important so that the best treatment can be identified. Many causes of depression for people with dementia are similar to adults who do not have dementia, such as:
How do I know if my loved one is depressed?
It's important to remember that depression is a long-term problem, and many assessment tools for depression consider thoughts and behaviors that have been present over the past two-week period. First, think about your loved one's mood over the past two weeks. If they have frequently appeared sad, tearful, hopeless or disinterested in things they usually enjoy doing, them may be depressed if they also show the following behavioral issues:
My loved one is depressed. What can I do to them them?
Caregivers may feel helpless when they are dealing with their loved one's depression. However, there are many things that you can do to help support your loved one if they appear depressed. First, resist telling the person to "get over it" or "cheer up." People with depression usually cannot make themselves feel better through will power.
Talk to a Healthcare Provider
There are many reasons to talk with a healthcare provider if the person you care for with dementia shows signs of depression. First, you should rule out other causes of depression that aren't related to dementia. For example, if the depression is caused by chronic pain from an undiagnosed condition or a side effect of medications the person is taking.
A second reason to talk with a healthcare provider is that they may be able to provide treatment for their depression. For example, talk therapy has shown to be beneficial for people with dementia who are depressed. For example, talk therapy could help the person cope with their stress and sadness related to their dementia diagnosis. are many medications available that help reduce depression. There are also medications to treat depression, though there is mixed evidence on how effective (or potentially harmful) some types of antidepressants are for people with dementia. If your healthcare provider suggests medication as part of your loved one's treatment, ask them about the risks and benefits from the medication being prescribed as well as potential alternatives.
Approaches without Drugs
There are a number of steps that caregivers can take to help reduce depression in someone with dementia.
Being a caregiver for someone with dementia is very challenging. When their loved one's behavior changes, they may feel at a loss for what to do for them. This can also cause caregivers to be stressed, anxious, or depressed. While these tips are for caregivers to help their loved one with depression, if you are a caregiver make sure that you are taking care of your own mental health by talking with a provider if you are feeling depressed. In my work with caregivers, I often find that caregivers tend to prioritize their loved one's health over their own, which leads to them suffering from mental and physical problems. If this sounds like you, remember the instructions that they give on airplanes before takeoff in case of an emergency: "Place your own oxygen mask on first before helping others." In other words, taking care of yourself will help you be your best for caring for your loved one.
The Caregiving 101 is a resource for caregivers in Alabama who want to learn more about caregiving and dementia.
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