Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for mild dementia. Although CBT has been adapted for depressed elderly patients with mild dementia, no efficacy data are available.17 During the 16 to 20 sessions, comprehensive neuropsychological test data are used to assess the cognitive capabilities of the patient. In addition, behavioral activation interventions are used in conjunction with memory aids (eg, notepads, audio recording of sessions). These interventions are also used to examine the evidence for and against a negative thought and to try out new attitudes and cognitions in stressful situations.17
Behavioral treatment for depression in moderate to severe dementia. In a randomized trial, a behavioral treatment that taught caregiver strategies designed to increase patients’ pleasant events or to help with problem-solving skills reduced depressive symptoms in elderly patients with major or minor depression and moderate to severe dementia.18 This treatment is the recommended psychosocial intervention for elderly patients who are depressed and have symptoms of advanced dementia.
Problem adaptation therapy. This is a new 12-week, home-delivered intervention developed to treat late-life major depression comorbid with significant cognitive impairment (including mild to moderate dementia) and disability.1 PATH focuses on the patient’s ecosystem, which involves the patient-caregiver dyad, and the patient’s home environment. Appropriate strategies are assessed and planned in the patient’s living environment, where patients experience most of their difficulties. PATH imparts problem-solving skills by using problem-solving therapy as its basic framework to promote adaptive functioning.
Pragmatic and readily available environmental adaptation tools, including calendars, checklists, notepads, signs, and timers, are integrated into the therapy. Finally, caregivers participate in the problem-solving process and the use of environmental adaptation tools, and assist in engaging and directing the patient to pleasant events. The PATH therapist must use the patient’s remaining cognitive strengths and promote independence and, at the same time, find effective ways to bypass the patient’s cognitive deficits and behavioral and functional limitations.
The case vignette describes how PATH can be helpful in the treatment of patients with depression and comorbid cognitive impairment and disability. It also illustrates the complexity of depression treatment in this population. Even though PATH is a home-delivered intervention that requires evaluation of the patient’s actual environment, in certain cases, it can be provided in outpatient settings with the help of a caregiver.
Mrs Y, an 82-year-old woman, became severely depressed following surgery for a hip fracture. Her cognitive functioning had decreased in the previous year. Her depression was characterized by depressed mood, lack of energy or interest in activities, psychomotor retardation, anhedonia, and concerns that she would never be herself again. Her MMSE score was 24 and her Dementia Rating Scale score was 128.3,6 Her executive functioning was significantly impaired, and she had mild memory and attention deficits. Mrs Y felt lost and was unable to perform activities that she performed regularly before surgery, including shopping, cooking, paying bills, and arranging social and family activities for herself and her husband. Mrs Y’s behavioral change affected her care. She could not organize her schedule to go to the rehabilitation center and to keep her primary care appointments. When her husband arranged house calls by a physical therapist, Mrs Y was not able to follow the recommended physical therapy exercises.
A clinician familiar with PATH visited Mrs Y to discuss the nature of her depression, redefine some complaints as symptoms of her depression, and explain how PATH could help both her depression and her disability. Mrs Y, her husband, and the therapist developed a list of Mrs Y’s problems. Among them, Mrs Y decided to target her inability to perform physical therapy exercises and her lack of social activities. For the first problem, Mrs Y indicated that she was disorganized, did not set a time for her exercises, and failed to memorize their sequence. The therapist suggested that Mrs Y always perform her exercises at the same time every day (10:30 am) and created a schedule of activities that would help her get ready for her exercises. The PATH therapist asked Mrs Y’s physical therapist to give Mrs Y only 2 exercises initially and to increase the number of exercises progressively. The physical therapist also provided Mrs Y with written instructions. Within the next 4 weeks, Mrs Y was able to perform 4 exercises daily.
As Mrs Y started progressing with her physical exercises, she, her husband, and the therapist started exploring the reasons for the lack of social activities. Mrs Y had not seen her family and friends because she found it difficult to get motivated and organized. She agreed to go to her daughter’s upcoming birthday party, which would provide the opportunity to reconnect with her daughter’s family and other friends. In addition, the party could serve as a stepping-stone for a broader plan of social activities. The plan involved buying a gift for her daughter. Mrs Y was uncertain of what to buy and where to buy it. Her homework assignment, therefore, was to work with her husband and create a list of pros and cons for possible gifts and stores. Working with her husband, Mrs Y was able to overcome her lack of motivation and buy a gift. She went to her daughter’s birthday party and was happy to see her family and especially her grandchildren.
During the next session, the therapist, Mrs Y, and her husband made a plan for pleasurable activities for the following weeks. These successes facilitated her rehabilitation, enhanced her self-esteem, and reduced her hopelessness. A few weeks after the intervention, Mrs Y’s depressive symptoms subsided, and she reported a better quality of life.
Psychosocial interventions are critical for elderly patients with depression who have cognitive impairment and disability because antidepressants provide symptom remission in fewer than 40% of patients. Psychosocial interventions must evaluate and target not only depression but also cognitive impairment and disability (Table 2). Therefore, appropriate modifications may be necessary: involvement of a caregiver, home delivery of the intervention (if possible), and environmental changes to help the patients improve their functioning. With these modifications, psychosocial interventions may provide relief to a large group of elderly patients with depression who may not respond to antidepressant medication treatment.