Handling Mood Changes as We Age

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Do you feel sad and empty? Irritable? Anxious? You can feel better.

As we age, changes bring stress into our lives. Children move away. Serious illness disrupts routines. Deaths of loved ones weigh on us. Our moods may plummet for a while, but if we manage to recover in a reasonable amount of time, our lives continue in meaningful ways. When sadness lingers, however, a treatable mood disorder may be behind it. Our retirement years do not have to be gloomy.

What Is Depression?

Sometimes, these feelings of sadness last for weeks, months, even years. It can prevent active people from engaging in the things they once enjoyed. Even if you have never experienced depressive symptoms before, anyone at any age can fall victim to it. After decades of research, scientists, doctors, communities, families and individuals now accept that depression results from a chemical imbalance in the brain. Often this imbalance can be treated and rectified.

What Causes Depression?

The brain’s chemicals become imbalanced for a number of reasons. Some individuals are genetically predisposed to depressive illness. Just as a diabetic’s body does not make enough insulin, the bodies and brains of some depressed people do not create an ideal balance of neurotransmitters. In many cases, serious illness such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer sends some into depression. Beyond the fear and stress these diseases can cause, the very medications that treat them can initiate, mimic or intensify depression.

If you have experienced a period of at least two weeks of sadness, lacked interest in activities you once enjoyed and have at least four of the symptoms below, you may have major (clinical) depression.

Depression’s Symptoms:

  • periods of crying;

  • feelings of emptiness;

  • anxiety, panic;

  • low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and guilt;

  • insomnia or excessive sleeping or other changes in sleep patterns;

  • over-eating, fasting or other changes in eating habits;

  • fatigue, exhaustion;

  • foggy thinking or inability to make decisions, forgetfulness;

  • abuse of alcohol or drugs; and

  • recurrent suicidal thoughts.


If you or someone you know has thoughts of death or suicide, contact a health care provider, clergy member, loved one, friend or crisis line such as 1-800-273-TALK, or go to the nearest hospital emergency room immediately.

What If I have More/Different Symptoms Than Those Above?

If the symptoms above come close but don’t exactly jibe with your experiences, it’s possible you may have either dysthymia or bi-polar disorder.

Dysthymia can be thought of as a milder form of depression. Like clinical depression, dysthymia causes people to struggle with decision-making, concentration, low self- esteem and fatigue. Because the symptoms don’t impact your life as drastically as clinical depression, you may have let yourself go years feeling less than optimal, thinking you’d feel better when something in your life has changed. Many medications treat dysthymia effectively.

People with Bipolar Disorder exhibit many of the symptoms of clinical depression, but they also swing to a highly excited, irritated or energized state, often called mania. Bipolar disorder, or manic depression, can be treated with a number of therapies, including medication and talk therapy.

Could I Have Bipolar Disorder?

Have you had debilitating periods of sadness, followed by periods of high excitement and activity? Do you find yourself dressing, speaking or exercising in extreme ways? Below, you’ll find a list of typical behaviors exhibited by those with bipolar disorder. If you have been exceptionally excited or active for a week at a time and check three of the symptoms below, talk with your healthcare provider about bipolar disorder.

  • Exaggerated optimism and self-confidence

  • An inflated perspective about your abilities and qualities

  • Racing thoughts

  • Brisk, speech

  • Impulsive behavior

  • Bad decision-making

  • Reckless behavior:

    o Shopping sprees
    o irresponsible driving choices o rash business decisions
    o sexual promiscuity

  • Experiencing delusions (holding untrue beliefs) and hallucinations (seeing and/or hearing things that aren’t there).


I Might Have a Mood Disorder. What Should I Do First?

Only a healthcare provider can accurately diagnose depression, dysthymia or bipolar disorder. You can contact your insurance carrier to find affiliate doctors in your area. Keep your symptoms checklist with you so you can easily explain what’s been happening.

Once You Have a Diagnosis . . .

Work together with your healthcare providers, regarding them as partners. They are medical professionals who see mood disorders for the chemical imbalances they are. Their challenge lies in how to get your body chemistry to ideal levels so that you can live your life to the fullest. They do not judge you for exhibiting the typical symptoms of depression or bipolar disorder. If you have more than one healthcare provider, make all necessary arrangements to enable these professionals to share information about you.

Since mood disorders tend to tailor-make their symptoms to each individual, it’s important that you become an expert in your own care. Further, becoming an expert in your care helps you feel in control and more self-confident. It’s also interesting to read up on these issues! You can become proactive in your treatment. Take charge of your treatment in the following ways:

  • Read and research so you can understand as much about your condition as possible.

  • Write down your medication(s), their dosage(s) and what to do if you forget a dose in each case.

  • Write down all contact information for your healthcare providers as well as the contact people the provider has set up in case he or she cannot be reached.

  • Find out how your medications may interact with each other and with medications you’re taking for other issues.

  • Learn about any side effects of your medications and be on the look-out for them.

  • Learn about how any of your medications will affect medical conditions not related to mood.

  • Explore the non-medical treatments that may improve your condition. Exercise, diet changes, social involvement, healthy sleep patterns all contribute to mood.

  • Know if psychotherapy can help your treatment.

Be aware of typical problems those undergoing treatment experience.

What Kinds of Treatments Are Available?If you’ve been diagnosed with depression, dysthymia or bipolar disorder, professionals on three fronts, from three different directions, stand ready to help. The medical establishment, psychotherapists and experienced support group organizers all address different aspects of life with a mood disorder. Typically, treatment plans are tailor-made for each individual, depending on the symptoms they’re exhibiting, their family situation and their financial means.

The Medical Approach

Once your diagnosis is confirmed, your medical doctor or psychiatrist will go over the various medications available. Sometimes, you have to try one medication after another until you find one that works the best for your body and fits into your lifestyle. Many people with mood disorders try several medications and even combinations of medications before they settle into what works best. While you may have hoped for immediate results, this trial and error process is worth the time and effort.

Medications for mood disorders may also keep you waiting while they build up to sufficient levels in your body. Be patient when waiting for a new medication to start to work. If you’re over fifty, you may require different amounts of medication than someone younger. Further, side effects from these medications can affect older patients more or in atypical ways. The effectiveness of the medication can depend on the function of your liver and kidneys. Other medications you take could also interfere with the new medication you’re trying. Keeping records of your medications, when you take them and how you feel will help you communicate with your doctor.

Coping with Medical Side Effects
Medications that target the brain can affect other physical systems as well. In fact, sometimes patients feels the side effects before the medicine’s benefits kick in. This delay can be frustrating. Rest assured; the simple steps below help to decrease these side effects. Remember: never skip a dose or change your dosage without talking to your doctor first. To handle side effects, consider these solutions:

  • If the medication is affecting your sleep, you can change the time you take it, so as to be more alert during the day and tired in the evening.

  • Nausea is easily remedied when you take medication with food.

Change your medication.

Beyond Medication: ECT Sometimes medication doesn’t have the effects doctors want. When depression or mania doesn’t respond to medication, your doctor may recommend ECT or electroconvulsive therapy. Unlike the images you may see in old movies, electroconvulsive therapy as it is conducted now is neither painful nor dangerous. It can never be applied without your consent. In fact, it lifts many out of overwhelming depression, and for those unable to take medications, ECT can be the only effective treatment. Unlike medication, its effects take place instantly. Sometimes, electroconvulsive therapy can cause short-term memory loss. If you’re considering ECT, know that you can discuss the level of ECT best for you with your doctor.


Psychotherapy: Support and New Perspectives

Psychotherapy or “talk therapy” can help anyone struggling with a mood disorder. First, a good psychotherapist can help you understand and handle the feelings and stresses that may surround your treatment. They can explain coping skills the others with mood disorders use successfully. Psychotherapy has proven to be very effective, particularly when used in combination with medication. Most notably, some with mild or moderate depression have recovered completely in the hands of a competent therapist, even without any medication at all.

Therapists come in many forms. Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, therapists, counselors, nurses and other health professionals can help you talk through your feelings. Therapists use many different approaches. They examine your behavior patterns or how your thoughts and emotions contribute to your illness. They also discuss your family of origin with you. Your therapist may recommend that you involve your family in your therapy or treatment. Since researchers agree that depression runs in families, letting others know what you’re doing may lead to more healing and self-awareness among your parents, siblings and children.

As with medication, you may have to try several forms of therapy or even several therapists before you feel comfortable in talk therapy. One therapy style that works wonders for you may have no effect on someone else. The same is true of therapists. The therapist your girlfriend considers a genius may turn you off completely. Those that stick with the search process gain a great deal when they find the professional that understands them.

Support Groups: Connecting with and Learning from Others Like You Like psychotherapy, support groups address aspects of the disorder that medication often can’t reach. One of the hardest parts of receiving a mood disorder diagnosis is the feeling that you’re odd or abnormal, utterly alone. Support groups normalize mood disorders and bring mood up (researchers have proven) as only social networks can do.

How Can a Support Group Help Me?

Creating a social network of others who understand your experiences benefits you in many ways. Support group members share coping skills, feelings of shame and embarrassment, treatment strategies and other important information. Every one of these members felt self-conscious and apprehensive upon arriving at their first meeting. These feelings eventually evaporate when they realize every one is there to support one another.

At first, the groups may seem mixed in age and background. After a while, you may meet others who would like to start a group just for older adults. You can tailor it to your needs by having meetings earlier in the day or by making it handicapped accessible. All support groups are confidential and free of charge. The mission of support groups is to:

  • provide a place of belonging and acceptance;

  • offer opportunities for self-discovery;

  • help friends and family of those affected understand that the mood disorder does not define an individual; and provide opportunities to learn from and connect with others who have gone through the same experiences.

Finding a support group is easy! Simply call us at 858-764-2496 or visit


Can Faith and Spirituality Help Me?Those receiving diagnoses of depression, dysthymia or bipolar disorder often find comfort and strength in faith. Faith helps you connect to a power larger than yourself, so that you can rely on energy you may not have within you at this point. Through organized religious services, you can learn meaningful lessons, attend stimulating activities and make social connections. Faith also provides a hope and optimism hard to find in any other resource.Trying to treat your condition with faith alone, however, is likely to fail. You can look at the progress medical professionals have made in the past 20 years in the field of mental illness as gifts from God. The blessings of medication, psychotherapy and support groups have enabled those who may have been hospitalized in another era to have engaging careers and stable, supportive family lives.If you’re searching for spiritual or religious grounding, discover what gives you strength and joy and hold onto it. Spiritual discovery is a personal journey, including worship, prayer, meditation, ritual, journal writing, reading inspirational books, volunteering and many other forms of contemplating meaning.What Other Health Improvement Measures Can I Take to Improve My Mood Disorder?As we’ve mentioned before, because a mood disorder affects different individuals differently, becoming the expert in your own form of mood disorder and the treatments that work best for you is crucial. The tips below show you how to develop an arsenal of tools to cope with your particular manifestation of depression, dysthymia or bipolar disorder. You can:

  • learn about your illness and its treatments;

  • determine to be a proactive, involved patient, viewing your doctor as a partner

  • keep abreast of the research in your illness;
  • keep all your health care appointments and follow the treatment plan you’ve worked out with your doctor;

  • eat regular, healthy meals;

  • develop healthy, regular sleeping patterns;

  • engage in some physical activity every day,

  • treat yourself to something you enjoy every day;

  • find ways to limit the stress in your life;

  • do not become dependent on alcohol or drugs;

  • stay on top of symptoms of your illness. When a problem arises, contact your healthcare provider or other support system members; and educate family and friends about your symptoms and prepare them to watch for when these behaviors emerge.

Financial Considerations 

Are There Any Ways to Reduce the Cost of Treatment?

All healthcare providers have experience in helping patients cut medical or therapeutic costs. Do not hesitate to talk to these professionals about:

  • reduced fees and payment plans

  • the cost savings and efficacy of generic medication

  • your eligibility for free medication from the drug manufacturer (senior

    citizens sometimes can get discounts)

  • the healthcare provider’s access to free samples of your medication

  • intervening on your behalf with your insurance company, either with a phone call or letters

    Other strategies for reducing treatment costs include:

  • using county or state services

  • going longer between psychiatric appointments. (Your therapist or

    psychiatrist can help you learn coping skills to manage your mood

    between visits.)

  • contacting your state’s mental health organizations to find out whether the

    state offers a risk pool for hard-to-insure individuals.

  • getting to your healthcare providers or support groups before you get to a

    crisis point. Talking briefly with a professional or making a slight adjustment in your medication can prevent more expensive interventions when a full-blown crisis occurs.

Is There Any Hope for Those Considering Suicide?

Absolutely! First, keep in mind that suicidal feelings are a symptom of the chemical imbalance underlying your mood disorder. Your brain is giving you false messages. In the majority of cases, your brain’s chemicals can be adjusted so that you can recognize the wonderful opportunities life has to offer. You CAN feel good about yourself again!

Someone considering suicide should take the following steps:

  • share your feeling with a healthcare provider, friend or family member right away;

  • tell that person to take away anything you could use to hurt yourself.

  • call 1-800-273-TALK for help. You’ll find them very understanding and compassionate; and call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. They will know exactly what to do with you and treat you with kindness.

How Can I Help a Relative or Friend Who Has Depression or Bipolar Disorder?Just as the individual suffering from a mood disorder isn’t alone, neither is the individual trying to help an emotionally compromised loved one. Healthcare providers, organizations, support groups, friends and family want to help you support and guide the mood disordered person in your life. Also, rest assured that the individual you care about can get well. Keep these tips handy, but do more research about specific diagnoses as well. First:

  • know that your loved one needs professional help. Encourage this person to find a doctor, psychiatrist or therapist. Help him or her stay with treatment;

  • talk to the healthcare professional yourself, if appropriate;

  • remind your relative or friend that biological and chemical issues underlie mood disorders and that no one educated in the field considers mood disorders to be character flaws or weaknesses. Help them see that the character flaw perception of mood disorders is outdated and grossly inaccurate;

  • maintain an encouraging, positive outlook on the situation. With the right medication and support, the situation will improve. Do your best to be patient;

  • help with errands or housework the individual may find overwhelming at this point;

  • apprise yourself of the symptoms of the mood disorder so that you can alert your friend or relative and a doctor or therapist if need be; and

  • research the organizations in your community that support those dealing with loved ones with mood disorders. 

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