“Whenever I visit my parents, my father seems more confused and irritable than ever before. How do I know if he is suffering from depression or dementia?” – Leigh from Mableton


Not every elderly person develops dementia, and depression is not a normal part of the aging process. It can be challenging for any family member or caregiver to see an aging parent experience mood changes and forgetfulness, just as it is difficult for you to know if it is depression or dementia. Here are some signs to look for as well as a few suggestions about getting help when your loved one is struggling.

Objectively Observe

Depression does not always look the same in elderly people as it does in younger individuals, especially when it comes to memory problems. Some behaviors you may notice can include:

  • Sadness and irritability
  • Frequent crying
  • Excessively fatigued
  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • Boredom, apathy, and disinterest in activities, even self-care
  • Withdrawal from socializing
  • Difficulty remembering things

This list is not inclusive, but rather a few of the more common behaviors you may have noticed.

Dementia is a cognitive disorder which does not present in an identical way to depression. A few symptoms that may indicate dementia are:

  • Changes in personality, behavior, or mood
  • Memory loss that impacts ability to function daily
  • Trouble performing daily tasks, including self-care
  • Inability to think critically or make decisions independently
  • Affected language and communication skills
  • Disorientation to place, date, and time

While it may seem as if your loved one is experiencing depression or dementia you should consider other factors that can impact mood and memory. A change in medication, grief due to the loss of a friend or family member, and physical illnesses may all cause similar symptoms that can resolve with treatment, therapy, or time to heal. Diagnosis is best left to your loved one’s medical professional who has extensive knowledge on conditions that may present in a similar fashion.

Helpful Hints

Depression and dementia are not mutually exclusive. In fact, many people with life-long, untreated depression are more likely to develop dementia as they age. That’s one of several reasons why it is so difficult for practitioners to diagnose your loved one and need the help of family members to get an accurate picture of symptom progression.

It can be painful to watch your elderly parents decline, especially when they may not behave like people you recognize. Finding ways to help can empower you when you may feel helpless. Instead of confronting your loved one or minimizing atypical behaviors, you can:

  • Schedule an appointment with your elderly parent’s doctor for a thorough examination.
  • Keep a record or list of symptoms as well as frequency of occurrence to provide at the appointment.
  • Encourage your loved one to participate in hobbies or social gatherings.
  • Monitor sleep, dietary, and physical activity to ensure physical needs are being met.
  • Listen. You can be supportive by allowing your loved one a non-judgmental environment to talk freely. If you are uncomfortable as the primary listener, try to find a therapist, close friend, or other family member to fill that role.

When your loved one experiences mood changes due to depression or dementia, you want the best possible care to preserve quality of life. Do not be afraid to ask for help or advice!

Wishing your family the best on this journey,



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