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Understanding Behaviors of Dementia: Depression

Over time, your loved one living with dementia may experience many changes in behaviors and personality. Not all of those with Alzheimer’s or dementia experience every behavior associated with dementia, but it is important for caregivers and family to be aware of the behaviors that are commonly associated with memory loss and dementia.

Depression is one behavior that is commonly associated with Alzheimer’s and is often noticed in the early and middle stages of the disease. Identifying depression in someone living with dementia or Alzheimer’s isn’t always easy. Many symptoms of Alzheimer’s mimic the symptoms of depression, such as apathy, social withdrawal, isolation, difficulty concentrating, and loss of interest in activities.

Someone with dementia who is also suffering from depression may experience sadness, hopelessness and guilt, among other feelings, but they will often find it difficult to articulate these feelings due to cognitive impairment as a result of the dementia. Depression in someone with dementia may be less severe, or have symptoms that come and go.

No matter how severe, if you notice any signs of depression in your loved one, discuss them with your loved one’s primary care provider. Diagnosis and treatment of depression can be especially helpful and may improve your loved one’s ability to function and overall sense of well-being. Talk to your loved one’s doctor about getting a referral to a geriatric psychiatrist who specializes in diagnosing and treating depression in senior adults.

Diagnosing Depression in Alzheimer’s

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in order for a person with dementia to be diagnosed with depression, he or she must display a depressed mood or decreased pleasure in usual activities along with two or more of the following symptoms for at least two weeks:

  • Withdrawal or social isolation
    • Disruptions in appetite not related to another medical condition
    • Disruptions in sleep
    • Agitation or slowed behavior
    • Irritability
    • Fatigue or loss of energy
    • Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness or inappropriate or excessive guilt
    • Recurring thoughts of death, suicide plans or attempted suicide

Treating Depression in Alzheimer’s

If your loved one has been diagnosed with depression, there are a variety of treatment options available. In most cases, successful treatment for depression in someone with dementia involves a combination of medicated and non-drug approaches, such as:

  • Support groups
    • Counseling
    • Scheduling a predictable daily routine
    • Exercise
    • Celebrating small successes and occasions
    • Finding a way for the individual to contribute to family life
    • Offering reassurance of love, respect and appreciation
    • Nurturing with favorite foods or soothing activities

If your loved one’s doctor has prescribed a medication to treat his or her depression, be sure to ask about any risks and benefits, as well as possible interactions with other medications.

For more tips on dealing with depression, visit alz.org.