Depression and Suicide Prevention: What to Do When a Loved One is Depressed

The suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade last week left most people in shock. Two exceptionally creative talents, who shared their passions with the world and seemed to have it all, took their own lives. Their untimely deaths have prompted other celebrities to open up about their own struggles with depression, and some have mentioned they have also contemplated suicide.

Many people don’t realize that adults ages 65 and older have a higher rate of suicide than those younger than them, and those 85 and older have the highest rate of suicide among all adults. Causes of suicide among seniors include feelings of loneliness and isolation, poor health due to illness, loss of independence, financial worries, and taking medications with depressive side effects. Unfortunately, depression is not well detected in older adults, as it is often mistaken for a natural part of aging. To be clear: Depression is NOT a natural part of aging, and it should be taken seriously.

Do you have a loved one who seems more unhappy, anxious, irritable, or moody? Perhaps they are isolating themselves by not seeing friends and relatives as much, not getting enough sleep, and/or they have stopped doing things that once interested them. All these signs can indicate your senior loved one is experiencing depression.

Causes of Depression—Risk Factors for Seniors

Many older adults have symptoms of depression, yet they may not seek help, nor be treated for it. We do know, however, that there is a strong connection between depression and suicide. It is important to recognize the warning signs of depression, and reach out to someone who may be considering suicide.

To help you recognize depression that warrants concern, whether in yourself or a loved one, these are depression symptoms that you shouldn’t ignore:

· Trouble Sleeping: Depressed people often lie awake at night, unable to sleep. On the other hand, some depressed people may find it difficult to get out of bed and may sleep for long periods during the day.

· Loss of Interest in Favorite Activities: A depressed person may lose interest in the activities they once loved. For instance, if a person who loved spending time with her grandchildren suddenly doesn’t want to see them, or a guy who loves to fish suddenly hangs up his rods, it could be a red flag.

· Increase in Energy: Ironically, when depressed people have made a decision to do something drastic, such as killing themselves, they may go from lackadaisical and slowed to more energetic. That’s because they feel a sense of relief in having come to a resolution. So, if you notice a drastic switch like this, you should be very concerned.

· Change in Appetite: Some people overeat when they’re depressed or anxious, but in people with severe depression, the opposite is usually true. A normally active adult who is depressed may stop eating because he or she is no longer concerned with physical well-being; disregard for personal hygiene is also cause for concern.

· An Emerging Dark Side: A person who is severely depressed may become preoccupied with death and other morose topics. For example, he or she may talk about what things will be like “after I am gone,” and may also become more likely to take uncalculated risks.

The Next Step: Getting Help

When you hear things that may indicate a problem with depression, encourage your loved one to see his or her doctor right away. Offer to help call the doctor and go to the appointment. If you or a loved one is considering harming himself or herself, or is having other dark thoughts, immediate treatment is critical. Call 911, go to the nearest emergency room, contact a private mental health provider, or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to

-Stay with the person. If you suspect that a senior is feeling suicidal there are some things you can do. If you believe there is an immediate danger, call 911. Do not leave the person alone until help is on the scene.

Create a safe environment. If the person expresses suicidal thoughts, remove any potentially lethal items from the home, such as guns.

See a mental health professional. It doesn’t have to be a psychiatrist — it can also be a psychologist or therapist.

Be kind. Blaming or chastising depressed people for feeling low or unmotivated is not helpful and typically serves to reinforce negative feelings they already have. Instead, open the discussion in a nonjudgmental way and encourage the person to seek help. Reassure the person that you care, that you have plenty of time to talk and that you will help the person get help. It is important that you do not promise to keep suicidal thoughts or plans a secret. If the person will only talk to you if you promise to keep it to yourself, do not promise this.

Know that depression IS treatable. In most people, depression, even major depression, is a very treatable disorder. There is a wide range of medications and therapies that have been proven to work.

Look to resources. There are many organizations that have online resources about depression. They include the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the American Psychological Association.

It’s important for our senior loved ones to know that it’s okay to talk about how they are feeling and that we as families and friends care about what they are experiencing. Let them know there is help and hope, and that depression is treatable no matter what one’s age.

Why we might not recognize depression in seniors

Sometimes depression signs or symptoms are missed because people choose to hide how they are feeling; for many, there is stigma associated with depression. Often seniors worry about taking medications, about being seen as “crazy,” and about losing their independence. Also, in our senior population depression can be misdiagnosed as dementia.

Do you have a loved one who is lonely and depressed?

If have a loved one who is lonely and/or feeling isolated or depressed, spend some time together (and make sure he or she gets professional help, if needed). The feelings you create by showing you care can change how he or she interacts with others and improve his or her mood. Remember, the benefit of your visit (or a call, if you cannot visit) will likely last, so call and visit senior loved ones whenever you can.

If you or your loved ones don’t have your estate planning, incapacity planning, or long-term care planning in order, as always, please contact us for an appointment for a no-cost introductory consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.