Background: Depression is the commonest mental health problem in elderly people and continues to be underdiagnosed and undertreated.
Aim: To explore the ways that primary care professionals and patients view the causes and management of late-life depression.
Design: A qualitative study using semistructured interviews.
Setting: One Primary Care Trust in North West England.
Participants: Fifteen primary care practitioners comprising nine GPs, three practice nurses, two district nurses and one community nurse; twenty patients who were over the age of 60 and who were participating in a feasibility study of a new model of care for late-life depression [PRIDE Trial: PRimary care Intervention for Depression in the Elderly (a feasibility study in Central Manchester funded by the Department of Health)].
Results: Primary care practitioners conceptualized late-life depression as a problem of their everyday work, rather than as an objective diagnostic category. They described depression as part of a spectrum including loneliness, lack of social network, reduction in function and viewed depression as 'understandable' and 'justifiable'. This view was shared by patients. Therapeutic nihilism, the feeling that nothing could be done for this group of patients, was a feature of all primary care professionals' interviews. Patients' views were characterized by passivity and limited expectations of treatment. Depression was not viewed as a legitimate illness to be taken to the GP. Primary care professionals recognized that managing late-life depression did fall within their remit, but identified limitations in their own skills and capabilities in this area, as well as a lack of other resources to which they could refer patients.
Conclusion: This study highlights the complicated nature of the diagnosis and management of late-life depression. Protocols for the diagnosis and treatment of depression emphasis the biomedical model which does not fit with the everyday experience of GPs or elderly patients who share the views of primary care professionals that depression is a consequence of social and contextual issues. There is a need for the development of evidence-based provision for older people with depression within primary care, but also a need for elderly patients to be made aware of the legitimacy of presenting low mood and misery to their primary care professional.