Dear Savvy Senior: Where can I find help for depression? My husband, who's 68, has become lethargic and very irritable over the past year, and I'm concerned that he's depressed. - Worried Wife
Dear Worried: Depression is unfortunately a widespread problem among U.S. seniors, affecting approximately 15 percent of the 65-and-older population. Here's what you should know, along with some tips and resources for screening and treatments.
Everyone feels sad or gets the blues now and then, but when these feelings linger more than a few weeks, it may be depression. Depression is a real illness that affects mood, feelings, behavior and physical health, and contrary to what many people believe, it's not a normal part of aging or a personal weakness, but it is very treatable.
It's also important to know that depression is not just sadness. In many seniors it can manifest as apathy, irritability, or problems with memory or concentration without the depressed mood.
To help you get some insight on the seriousness of your husband's problem, here's a rundown of the warning signs:
A good resource for identifying depression is Mental Health America, a national nonprofit organization that offers a free online depression screening test at depression-screening.org. This test takes just a few minutes to take and can help determine the severity of your husband's problem.
There's also National Depression Screening Day which is coming up on Oct. 11. Sponsored by Screening for Mental Health, this is a completely free service that provides depression screenings by mental health professionals at hundreds of locations across the country. The test takes less than 15 minutes to complete, and is available to people of all ages. To find a site near you visit helpyourselfhelpothers.org.
Also be aware that Medicare now covers annual depression screenings as part of their free Welcome to Medicare visit for new beneficiaries, and free annual wellness visits thereafter.
If your husband is suffering from depressive symptoms, he needs to see his doctor for a medical evaluation to rule out possible medical causes. Some medications, for example, can produce side effects that mimic depressive symptoms - pain and sleeping meds are common culprits. It's also important to distinguish between depression and dementia, which can share some of the same symptoms.
If he's diagnosed with depression, there are a variety of treatment options including talk therapy, antidepressant medications or a combination of both.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a particularly effective type of talk therapy that helps patients recognize and change destructive thinking patterns that leads to negative feelings. For help finding a therapist, ask your doctor for a referral, check your local yellow pages under "counseling" or "psychologists" or check with the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (abct.org), or the Academy of Cognitive Therapy (academyofct.org).
Another treatment worth mentioning is a relatively new procedure called transcranial magnetic stimulation. This FDA-approved treatment uses a small electromagnet placed on the scalp right behind the left forehead, and delivers a tiny electric current to the part of the brain linked to depression. This treatment is currently available in about 420 psychiatrist offices around the country (see neurostartms.com) and is very effective for older patients.
Savvy tip: The National Institute of Mental Health offers a variety of free publications on depression that you can order at infocenter.nimh.nih.gov, or call 866-615-6464.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC's "Today" show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.