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Depressed and lonely elderly 'not being treated'

A POPULATION of 1.5 million elderly people, mostly living alone in the community, are suffering from depression but not being treated, a report says today.

The report adds that depression or severe recurrent sadness is so common in isolated elderly people that it is ignored or dismissed as a natural part of being old.

Jef Smith, general manager of the charity Counsel and Care, which provides support to the elderly and their carers, says the problem is increasing because of more emphasis on community care. In addition, he says, the situation is compounded by demographic changes with people living longer, and social changes with families dispersed or without the means of supporting elderly parents or relatives.

'As good as the objective of community care is in general terms, we must put in appropriate levels of sensitive community help. By definition this group is not going to demonstrate for its rights. It is hidden away, silent and very easy to ignore.'

Mr Smith said that both medical treatment and community support needed to be in place. 'One of our researchers just told me of a conversation she had with an elderly lady. The researcher asked if new pills had helped. The lady said: 'Well they stopped me crying, didn't they'. This perfectly sums up the 'symptom only' approach to treatment,' he said.

The report, Being Cared For, is a discussion document and will be followed by detailed analyses of the realities of the lives of a group of elderly in a London borough, who are depressed. This group is now being identified.

The report drew information from a number of sources. It says that 16 per cent of respondents to one survey were found to have depression 'to a level that intervention should be considered'. This was twice as many as the proportion with evidence of dementia.

It goes on to list seven criteria necessary for good quality of life for the elderly: security, privacy, dignity, independence, rights, choice and fulfilment.

Peter Millward, Eleanor Peel professor of geriatric medicine at St George's Hospital, south London, and president of the British Geriatrics Society, said: 'Depression is not an ageing phenomenon. The major problem is families who do not consider that if someone is deteriorating physically or in spirit or with their ability to cope, they should seek help for that person. We have to get away from this mindset on old age. Old age is not necessarily a time of doom and despair,' he said.