Dementia and Depression – How to Help Someone You Love Get the Help They Need

A shot of a senior man sitting on the sofa with his daughter, looking at a photograph. He is cuddling his daughter, looking sad and holding the photo.


According to the Alzheimer’s Association, every 66 seconds, someone in America develops the disease. For many of these people, depression will soon follow. The fear and anxiety surrounding the potential inability to remember life’s most cherished moments – and loved ones – can leave people feeling hopeless.

Unfortunately, diagnosing depression in someone living with dementia can be difficult, particularly if they are in the middle to later stages of the disease. Many of the symptoms of dementia mimic the symptoms of depression: apathy, loss of interest in activities, social withdrawal and trouble concentrating. Additionally, it may be challenging for someone living with dementia to fully express their feelings, making a diagnosis even more difficult.

The good news is that once a diagnosis is made, there are several things a caregiver or loved one can do to help those living with depression.

Make sure they get proper treatment

Once a diagnosis is made, it’s important to seek treatment. Seniors, as a group, typically respond well. Treatment may include medication, counseling and reconnecting patients with activities and people that bring them joy. Support groups, especially for those in the early stages of the disease can be particularly helpful.

Help them seek out social events

Isolation is a huge trigger for depression, so connecting loved ones to social activities can literally be lifesaving. One innovative idea is the Memory Café, which welcomes people with memory loss and their families. It’s a great place for those living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias to feel welcome as well as for caregivers to be able to meet others sharing their experiences. There are several “memory cafés” throughout the Boston area.

Help them get some exercise

Exercise can provide powerful mood-boosting effects. A study at Duke University found that among people over 50 who were majorly depressed, those who exercised exclusively for their therapy showed significant improvement compared to those who received medication alone or those who combined medication with exercise. And the exercise wasn’t extensive – it consisted of walking briskly for 30 minutes three times a week.

Help them maintain a brain-healthy diet

Numerous studies have shown a link between sugar and refined carbohydrates (white flour, white rice, pasta) to depression. These foods cause inflammation in the brain, which can cause depression. A study published in JAMA Psychiatry found brain inflammation was 30 percent higher in patients who were clinically depressed. The Mediterranean diet has been associated with better cognitive function and even a lower risk for developing Alzheimer’s.

 Celebrate small moments and successes

If a loved one has a good day, acknowledge that and celebrate. Show them that it is still possible to have a life of purpose and joy, even in the midst of their disease. Look for ways that your loved one can still make contributions to their family and the world at large.