Depression and Alzheimer’s

“Depression is never normal.”  

Not even for someone with dementia.

In the most recent series of posts, we’ve been spotlighting some “what-ifs”: the sudden questions that can blindside caregivers as they contemplate what challenges the future might hold. Today, however, we’re taking a side trip to look at the issue of depression and the impact it can have on a loved one with Alzheimer’s.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, it’s not uncommon for people with Alzheimer’s to be depressed, especially in the early and middle stages of the disease. In fact, the Association says, “Experts estimate that up to 40 percent of people with Alzheimer’s disease suffer from significant depression.”

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And yet, “depression is never normal.” Shortly after I became Mom’s caregiver, I heard those words from well-known Dallas-area geriatric psychiatrist Dr. David Crumpacker. He was addressing a group gathered in a comfortable public room at an assisted living facility. The subject was Alzheimer’s.

Speaking for myself, the fact that 40 percent of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s become depressed doesn’t surprise me. But Dr. Crumpacker’s words did surprise me. “Depression is never normal.” Not even for someone with Alzheimer’s? No, not even for someone with Alzheimer’s.

What does that mean? Why did the doctor make such a point of saying that, even when someone is diagnosed with such a cruel disease as Alzheimer’s, depression shouldn’t be considered a “normal” consequence?

Because, unlike Alzheimer’s, depression can be treated. And available treatments, the Alzheimer’s Association says, can lead to “significant difference in quality of life.”

And that’s information caregivers should act on. If you even suspect the person you’re caring for is depressed, pursue a diagnosis. As with virtually everything related to the changed behaviors that accompany Alzheimer’s, the first critical step for a caregiver is letting the doctor know.

You’re probably aware that Alzheimer’s can complicate the diagnosis and treatment of other illnesses. That includes depression. For one thing, the two illnesses share some symptoms, such as isolation, loss of interest in activities and hobbies, confusion and impaired thinking. And the cognitive impairment our loved ones experience may make it more difficult for them to describe their feelings and symptoms. Because of this, the Alzheimer’s Association says, “It may be helpful to consult a geriatric psychiatrist who specializes in recognizing and treating depression in older adults.” But caregivers can begin by talking to the primary care physician.

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Don’t assume that, because he or she knows your loved one has Alzheimer’s, the doctor will automatically know the issues that most dramatically affect your loved one’s health and quality of life. Moods or behavior you observe that concern you should be brought to the doctor’s attention. I emphasize this because, as a new caregiver, I wrongly assumed the doctor would take the lead. I made the mistake of thinking, “The doctor knows this disease. He knows all the important topics to be discussed, all the important problems we’re encountering in caring for Mom.  If he doesn’t bring it up while we’re here in his office, it’s not really important.”

I was wrong. But I was fortunate. The results of my mistake could have been far more serious than they were.

In the next post, I’ll describe how I learned about the effects of depression on someone with Alzheimer’s. But for now, the facts are clear:

  • Depression is never normal.
  • Depression is not uncommon in Alzheimer’s patients.
  • Depression can be treated.
  • Treatment for depression may lead to significant improvement in quality of life for the one you care for.

I’ve experienced that shift from dark to brighter; I pray you can, too.

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Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him….   (Ps. 42:5  NKJV)

Father, be with us as we care for our loved ones. Help us to see what we need to see, and then do what is necessary to protect them. Thank You that we are never alone.