Often as people age they begin to question why their later years are referred to as golden. With so many life changes, aging can be difficult, even depressing at times. In fact, experts estimate two million people over age 65 in the United States are depressed.

The most common form of depression in seniors is due to “adjustment disorders.” These occur in response to a stressful event or situation and can be either acute, lasting less than six months, or chronic, lasting longer.

It’s not surprising when you consider the many major life changes seniors experience. They tend to experience a lot of loss — loss of friends and loved ones to death, loss of some physical abilities and loss of some independence. As you age, injuries take longer to heal, you live with more pain and your social life may diminish. Just thinking about it can be depressing.

But aging and depression don’t have to go hand-in-hand. In fact, depression is not normal at any age, and seniors don’t have to suffer. There are four very effective ways to ease the sadness and continue enjoying life regardless of age.

First, consider antidepressant medication. Depression often affects or is the result of brain chemistry, and antidepressant medication can improve mood, concentration, appetite and sleep.

New research shows these medications offer additional benefits for seniors suffering from age-related illnesses, such as dementia and depression. People with these illnesses have lesions beneath the cortex of the brain, but those who have taken antidepressants show fewer increases in lesions than those who continue to be depressed.

Second, be sure to exercise. Sometimes seniors feel their physical limitations rule out this option, but any form of exercise can be helpful. Whether water therapy, walking or light circuit training, exercise can be as effective as medication for lifting your spirits. It can also help you avoid chronic depression, even during times of major loss.

Third, talk it out. Talk therapy can be very effective in changing negative thinking patterns. You can explore support groups, clergy counseling or one-on-one psychotherapy, and many people find relief simply in confiding in a good friend or family member.

Fourth, stay involved. Maintaining social connections is a great way to reduce isolation and loneliness while also increasing self worth. It can be hard to reach out to others when you’re feeling depressed, but doing so can help solve the problem. You can consider volunteer work in your community — whether it be something formal like a museum docent or less formal such as visiting other seniors or helping coordinate your church’s rummage sale.

Depression often goes unnoticed and untreated in seniors. Some common signs of depression include fatigue, sleep problems, anxiety, sadness, crying, irritability, hopelessness and indecision. If you experience these symptoms for more than a couple weeks, it’s worth an assessment.

Begin with your physician. Most today are well trained in assessing depression. Plus, many seniors know and trust their doctors. Physicians can help you rule out medications or other factors that may be contributing to your depression, and they can help you develop a safe exercise plan and even refer you to a therapist.

Instead of accepting depression as a normal part of aging, accept that it’s an illness that requires attention just as any other physical malady. Whatever your age, there’s still plenty of joy to experience. Take care of yourself by taking care of your depression, and you’ll find your later years can be golden after all.

As published in the November 2006 Edition of the Holmen Courier and Onalaska Community Life.