Seniors: Is it Grief or Depression?

Aug 10th, 2010 | By Sharon Shaw Elrod MSW EdD | Category: Lifestyle, Health & Fitness

Senior citizens are at the top of the list of concerns when it comes to dealing with grief after the loss of a loved one.  Simply because of age, we are more likely than any other generation to experience grief when our spouse or sibling or dear friend dies.  Grief is normal, and we expect to feel the sadness.

So when is sorrow simply grief, and when is it depression?  Emotional pain has degrees of intensity and duration.  The symptoms of grief and depression are very similar:

  • Sleeplessness
  • Feelings of sadness and loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Tearfulness

Helping professionals in the psychiatric community (psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, therapists) are in the midst of a disagreement about how the diagnosis regarding depression should be made.  The diagnostic manual used by the professionals has a new version coming out soon, and in it depression is said to be the above symptoms lasting more than two weeks.  Heretofore, there was a bereavement exclusion, that is grief over death of a loved one could last a longer period of time and still be considered normal.

A Harvard researcher who studies bereavement says research is limited on the number of people who experience normal versus abnormal grief after loss; further, she says most people have grief/depression much longer than two weeks.  She is Holly Prigerson, and she reports this in an NPR news report this week:

“What we found is that when you follow people — for example, between zero and six months post-loss — their depression symptom levels actually increase over time and peak at about six months post-loss.”  NPR News Report

Others in the field are clear about the need to treat depression, and if an error is made, it is made on the side of treatment rather than not.  Severe depression untreated can result in suicide, and no helping professional wants that on her/his conscience.

The third issue here is what seems to be a trend in medicalizing normal behavior.  Grief following loss of a loved one is normal.  If, because a diagnostic manual says it should be treated after two weeks, on Day 15 following the death of a loved one medication is prescribed to ‘treat’ what might be depression, it is possible we’re overstepping an important line that needs further study.  

Any senior experiencing grief for a prolonged period of time needs to see her/his primary medical doctor to assess the possibility of depression.  Symptoms of grief and depression need to be assessed by a competent professional in order to determine what is normal and what needs treatment.



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  1. [...] | Senior Citizen Journal [...]

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  3. [...] or in combination with others, and extending over time, may indicate the senior is depressed.   Depression can result from chemical issues in the brain/body, but it can also be triggered by death of a loved [...]

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