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The Geriatric Depression Scale

Results of the Geriatric Depression Scale Explained

The GDS relies on self-reporting. There are two iterations of the test, a long- and a short-form version. The short form is 15 questions, while the long version is twice that. The short version works well for people who are tired easily or suffering from dementia.

Unlike most depression screening tools, the GDS requires only yes or no answers. Questions are short and simple: Are you basically satisfied with your life? Do you feel that your life is empty? Do you feel full of energy? Questions are based on characteristics most often seen in late-life depression, with the exception of somatic, or physical, symptoms. Since so many older people have physical ailments, asking about somatic symptoms could skew results [source: Montorio and Izal].

You can find both versions of the GDS in English, with scoring, on Yesavage's Web site. Contributors have also posted the tool translated into languages from Haitian Creole to Welsh. There's even a free app for the GDS in the iTunes store and the Android marketplace.

A score greater than five on the short-form, or 10 on the long-form, indicates the possibility of at least mild depression. A psychiatric evaluation is the next step to assessing the severity of the person's depression so that treatment options can be discussed.

It's important to remember that there's no depression treatment that's just right for everyone. It can take a while to find the method that works.

The first line of treatment is usually an antidepressant, ideally combined with psychotherapy. It can be tricky to find the right drug for an older person, however, as many seniors are on other drugs that may interact badly with one another, and an older person's body processes antidepressants differently.

An option for people who are seriously depressed, those who can't take antidepressants or whose treatments haven't otherwise worked is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Despite the (erroneous) public perception of its brutal nature, a la "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," ECT is a very effective and helpful treatment for depression. The response rate in older patients is 90 percent; in older people with depression resistant to medication, it's 70 percent [source: Alexopoulos and Kelly]. (Remission rates are 70 percent and 50 percent, respectively.)

As the baby boomer generation ages, mental health in late life will undoubtedly become a larger public health concern. According to the Administration on Aging, people ages 65 and older will make up 19 percent of the U.S. population by 2030 [source: AOA]. That's a large chunk of the country that will need mental health services -- services that the nation's health care system has to be prepared to provide.

To learn more about depression and mental health, visit the links and resources on the next page.