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Live Well

Recognizing and Treating Depression in Retirement


Dear Savvy Senior: Since retiring a few years ago, my husband has become increasingly irritable and apathetic. I’m concerned that he’s depressed. Where can we get help, and what, if anything, does Medicare pay for? — Concerned Spouse

Dear Concerned: Depression is a widespread problem among older Americans, affecting approximately 15 percent of the 65-and-older population. Here’s what you should know.

Identifying depression

Everyone feels sad or gets the blues, but when these feelings linger more than a few weeks, it may be depression. Depression is a real illness that affects mood, feelings, behavior and physical health, and contrary to what many people believe, it’s not a normal part of aging or a personal weakness, and it is very treatable.

It’s also important to know that depression is not just sadness. In many seniors it can manifest as apathy, irritability, or problems with memory or concentration without the depressed mood.

To help you get a handle on the seriousness of your husband’s problem, a first step is for him to take an online depression-screening test.

Free tests are available at Mental Health America, a national nonprofit organization with online mental health screening tools at MentalHealthAmerica.net. (Click on “Take a Screen” in the menu bar.) Or at HelpYourselfHelpOthers.org, the website for Screening for Mental Health, Inc.

Both of these tests are anonymous and confidential, they take less that 10 minutes.

Get help

If you find that he is suffering from depressive symptoms, he needs to see his doctor for a medical evaluation to rule out possible medical causes. Some medications can produce side effects that mimic depressive symptoms — pain and sleeping meds are common culprits. It’s also important to distinguish between depression and dementia, which can share symptoms.

If he’s diagnosed with depression, treatments include talk therapy, antidepressant medications or a combination of both.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a particularly effective type of talk therapy, which helps patients recognize and change destructive thinking patterns.

For help finding a therapist, ask your doctor for a referral or check with the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (FindCBT.org) or the Academy of Cognitive Therapy (AcademyofCT.org).

And to search for therapists that accept Medicare, use Medicare’s Physician Compare tool. Go to Medicare.gov/physiciancompare and type in your zip code, or city and state, then type in the type of profession you want locate, like “psychiatry” or “clinical psychologist” in the “What are you searching for?” box.

Medicare coverage

You’ll be happy to know that Medicare covers 100 percent of costs for annual depression screenings in a doctor’s office. They also pay 80 percent of outpatient mental health services like counseling and therapy, and will cover almost all medications used to treat depression under the Part D prescription drug benefit.

If you and your husband get your Medicare benefits through a private Medicare Advantage plan, they will likely require him to see an in-network provider for coverage.

Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.

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