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Depression or dementia? How to know the signs and care for aging parents

Posted on Nov. 10, 2017 ( comments)

As we age, we may deal with health conditions such as hearing loss and arthritis. Though not inevitable, these are common conditions that we’ll likely talk to our doctor about, and get treatment for.

So why don’t we treat mental health conditions the same way?

The most common mental health conditions facing older adults are depression and dementia. In fact, one in five people over the age of 60 suffers from symptoms of depression, and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 47.5 million people worldwide live with dementia.

But confusion about symptoms and stigma around mental illness persist. Instead of talking to our families or physicians, we may keep quiet out of fear.

“The stigma is still strong,” says Julie Jensen, Manager, MultiCare Behavioral Health, Older Adult Services.

Help is available, though. We spoke to two experts in MultiCare Behavioral Health to learn the signs and symptoms of depression and dementia and what you can do if you or a loved one is suffering from one of these conditions.

Learn more about our Behavioral Health programs and how to reach us.


Many myths persist about depression, including the assumption that depression is just what happens as you get older.

“The majority of older adults are healthy and happy,” says Jensen. “Depression is not a normal part of aging.”

Often losses are the cause of depression — loss of health or the death of a loved one, for example. But for some, it may be genetic or recurring.

“Some have experienced depression throughout their lives,” Jensen says.

For many older adults, the first discussion of depressive symptoms is with their primary care doctor, who can refer you or your loved one to MultiCare Behavioral Health.

The good news is that treatment works and Behavioral Health offers services to meet the unique needs and circumstances of each person individually — counseling, support groups and/or medication.

Symptoms of depression:

  • Feeling sad/blue
  • Loss of motivation/interest
  • Sleep disturbance (too much or too little sleep)
  • Confusion and memory issues
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Low energy
  • Suicide ideation (“I don’t want to burden my family”)


First things first: dementia and Alzheimer’s are not interchangeable. Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia.

Dementia is a group of symptoms that includes changes in mood, personality and behavior. It involves a severe loss of intellectual functioning that interferes with a person’s ability to perform daily activities such as working, driving or preparing meals.

Like depression, dementia is not a normal part of aging, but age is the most common risk factor, says Anita Kent, OTR/L, Dementia Specialist, MultiCare Behavioral Health, Older Adult Services.

Plus, dementia and depression share some of the same symptoms, adding to the confusion of diagnosing the disease.

“A person with depression can experience confusion, difficulty concentrating and memory loss, which can be misdiagnosed as dementia,” Kent says.

It is important to have a professional conduct a comprehensive assessment for dementia that also includes ruling out other medical conditions. There’s no known cure for dementia, but medications may slow the progression — and support groups and counseling can help caregivers remain healthy and able to care for a loved one with dementia.


  • Changes in personality (agitation, suspiciousness, aggressiveness)
  • Hallucinations or delusions (false beliefs)
  • Confusion
  • Inability to retain information
  • Difficulty making sense of surroundings
  • Loss of common sense
  • Sleep disturbance (too much or too little sleep)
  • Trouble with performing normal activities

How to help

The most important thing to remember when trying to help parents who may have a mental health condition is to be honest, caring and loving — not accusatory, Jensen says.

“Understand your parents have lived most of their lives independently,” she says. “It’s important to put yourself in your parents’ shoes and try to understand what they want.”

And don’t wait until a crisis hits to take action. Be aware of the symptoms and have an honest conversation with your loved one.

MultiCare Behavioral Health offers many programs and services for mental health, and can connect people to other local services and resources for those without insurance. Behavioral Health also provides support groups and other resources to caregivers.

Remember: It is possible to treat and/or manage mental health conditions, so don’t give up on yourself or your loved ones.

“These people are vibrant and want to live their lives,” Jensen says. “We help them do that.”

Learn more about our Behavioral Health programs and how to reach us.

Posted in: Behavioral Health

About The Author

Roxanne Cooke Roxanne Cooke

Roxanne Cooke is our senior content editor and manages VitalsKite Strings and Bring Happy Back, plus special projects such as 24 Hours at Tacoma General Hospital and The Healthy Futures Project. She tells stories in words, photos and video. You can reach her at [email protected]

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