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Grief vs. Depression

January 10, 2023 | Laura Tenpenny

Grief vs. Depression in the Elderly: A Guide for Caregivers

As part of the aging process, older adults commonly experience losses like the death of a friend, family member, or pet; changes in health; and gradual declines of mobility and independence. These and other losses often lead to grief and mourning and working through those feelings is an important part of your loved one’s emotional wellness. However, there is no timeline for grief. So, as a caregiver, how do you know when your loved one is struggling and needs extra support?

The signs might not be easy to spot. Depression in seniors is unique. Rather than tearfulness or crying, many seniors who have depression exhibit low energy, lack of motivation, and an unwillingness to leave the home. The reason this gets missed is that a lot of people perceive these things as a normal part of aging. It is not normal.

What is grief?

Grief is most often experienced as a few intense, painful emotions that arise in response to a loss. Although it may be difficult to see a loved one grieving, it is important to understand that grief is a normal, healthy response to major life-changing events, says Hashmi.

Most everyone will experience grief at some point in their lives. But the grieving process can vary from person to person. Some common expressions of grief include:

    • Strong feelings of sadness
    • Feelings of anger, guilt, or anxiety
    • Denial or disbelief
    • Decreased concentration or lack of motivation
    • Temporary loss of interest in daily activities

Someone who is grieving may also experience:

    • Loss of appetite
    • Sleeping too much or, conversely, being unable to sleep
    • Low energy levels and fatigue

Grief usually feels most intense in the first days and weeks after a loss. As your loved one processes the loss, feelings of grief may come and go in waves, or the feelings may become more manageable overall.

What are some signs that my grieving loved one might have depression?

There is considerable overlap between the symptoms of grief and the symptoms of depression. It can be tricky to distinguish between the two. Often, time is a key indication. Symptoms of grief that persist for weeks to months after a loss might point to depression.

Depression — also called major depressive disorder — is a common, treatable medical condition. It causes persistent, long-lasting feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and apathy. Some signs that your grieving loved one might have depression include:

    • Feelings of grief that do not change or improve over time
    • Feeling so overwhelmed that he or she is unable to participate in daily life for longer than six weeks after the loss
    • Changes in appetite that last long enough to cause significant weight loss
    • An inability to sleep or getting only minimal amounts of sleep for days or weeks at a time
    • Persistent, long-lasting feelings of hopelessness, guilt, and self-blame
    • Talk of suicide or hurting oneself or others

If your loved one has any of these signs, encourage them to schedule an appointment with their geriatrician or primary care doctor. Depression is not something that your family member can “snap out of” on their own. But safe, effective treatment options — like talk therapy and medication — can help them feel better. Studies suggest that for many older adults, a combination of both talk therapy and medication is often more effective than either treatment option alone.

How can I help a grieving loved one?

If your loved one is struggling to cope with a loss, just being there for them can be a powerful help.

Encourage them to talk. At first, you may worry that you will say the wrong thing or unintentionally make things worse. But know that talking can help your loved one process the loss and work through their emotions. For example, if your loved one is grieving the loss of a friend or family member, let them know that it is okay to talk about the person they are missing. Ask your loved one to share memories or stories. Share what you remember, too.

Provide reassurance. Your loved one may be worried about showing their feelings. Or they may feel alone. As a caregiver, you are in a unique position to validate their feelings and normalize their experience, Hashmi says. Remind them that what they are experiencing is common, that grief takes many forms, and that it takes time to heal.

Help them take care of their physical health and household. People who are grieving or depressed might find it difficult to muster the energy for daily tasks. If you notice that your loved one is struggling to prepare meals, care for the household, or get dressed, find ways to help. For example, you might prepare a few meals they can easily warm up when they are feeling hungry. You might do a load of laundry or wash the dishes. Or you could offer to help them get dressed for a short walk around the neighborhood, or to sit with you outside.

Encourage them to seek help for persistent symptoms. You know your loved one best. If you are feeling worried, do not ignore your concerns. Instead, be honest with your family member. Open up about your worries and gently ask whether they feel hopeless, depressed, or are having thoughts of self-harm or suicide. If so, remind them that depression is common and treatable, and help them schedule an appointment with their doctor as soon as possible.

Depression is treatable. It is not an incurable illness. The travesty would be if we do not do something about it. If you need additional resources, call us. We are here to help. Call us at 863-815-6195 or visit us anytime at Senior Living Community in Lakeland – Lake Gibson Village.

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