Although depression is common among older Americans, experts say it's not just a normal part of the aging process. Whenever feelings of sadness and grief are persistent and interfere with daily activities, they may be signs of major depression--a disease that affects 1 to 5 percent of senior citizens in the mainstream community, the National Institute of Mental Health reports.

Understanding the Triggers

Those percentages rise dramatically for older adults who receive home care (13.5 percent) and those living in hospitals (11.5 percent). Common triggers for depression in older adults include heart attacks, retirement, impaired ability to function on independently, the loss of a loved one, or the onset of dementia or Alzheimer's disease, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Keep in mind that some symptoms of depression are also symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, so it's important to consult a doctor about any concerns you or a loved one may have. Many seniors are embarrassed to admit that they may be depressed because they consider it a personal weakness. For this reason, it's important to emphasize that depression is a medical illness that can be treated through counseling, medication, or a combination of both.

Spotting the Signs

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, people who suffer from depression exhibit many of the following symptoms:

  • loss of interest in things that were once enjoyed;
  • feelings of sadness, emptiness, worthlessness, or guilt;
  • crying for no apparent reason;
  • restlessness and irritability;
  • change in appetite;
  • head, back, and stomach aches;
  • inability to sleep or sleeping too much; or
  • thoughts of suicide or death.

In addition to helping the depressed person seek treatment, if you're a caregiver, there are a few things you can do to help. Encourage your loved one to stay active socially and recreationally, which will help to instill motivation and purpose. Keep a daily routine for your loved one, especially if he or she suffers from dementia, and let them help you with simple chores, like making a meal or dusting.

It's also important to ensure that your loved one is capable of doing the tasks you assign, as failure could lead to frustration and feelings of helplessness. Most importantly, remember to stay positive. If your loved one sees you frustrated or upset, he or she may feel guilty, but if they see you happy and upbeat, it may raise their spirits.

Above all, remember that depression is a serious disease that can be cured with proper treatment. If you are concerned that a loved one may have severe depression or is thinking about suicide, it's important to seek help immediately, either by contacting your a doctor or by calling a suicide hotline such as 1-800-273-TALK (8255).