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Depressed seniors need to be convinced it’s OK to seek help

Tue., Dec. 11, 2012

Recognizing depression in a relative or friend is one thing.

Talking with them about getting treatment is another – especially, suicide prevention advocates say, when the person with depression belongs to a generation less likely to place faith in mental health services, or “mental health” as a concept.

“This older generation actually went through the Depression,” said AJ Sanders, who runs the suicide-prevention program at the Spokane Regional Health District. “This is nothing to them. ‘We’ve been through worse, we can get through this,’ ” the thinking goes, she said. “They don’t even want to ask for meals to come to their home. They’re not going to ask for mental health (help).”

Meanwhile, seniors have the highest suicide rates in the nation. And depression that often contributes to suicide among the elderly is highly treatable, said Catherine Perusse, a mental health counselor in Sandpoint who leads the North Idaho chapter of the Suicide Prevention Action Network.

“But you have to get people to accept that it’s not a weakness,” Perusse said. “And most seniors view depression as a weakness: ‘I’m being weak. I should just get my act together and move on.’ ”

It’s a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps outlook prevalent among older populations, she said.

“If you’ve got a chemical imbalance, which is what causes depression – whether it’s situational or physiological – you can pull your bootstraps all you want, it ain’t gonna help,” Perusse said.

Suicide rates are especially high among nursing home residents and widows and widowers, said Pamela Sloan, elder services director at Frontier Behavioral Health. Other factors that contribute to depression among seniors: the loss of a driver’s license, the loss of physical mobility, the death of an elder’s own child.

Older men commit suicide far more often than older women. Sloan said their higher rate can often be linked to a sense of purpose, a sense of self built on physical accomplishment, that erodes along with physical abilities.

Meanwhile, it’s become impractical or impossible for extended families to live together, leaving older people isolated at home or in care facilities. Whereas one stay-at-home parent used to be able to care for aging relatives as well as children, all under the same roof, now both adults work. The grandchildren who used to be around to hear stories about the old days now live states away.

And people are living longer, Perusse noted. Retirements expected to last 10 years may last 30. Adults who’ve worked their entire lives – at occupations and at home – are at a loss.

Those who seek out volunteer roles or other outlets that make them feel connected to communities are people who “really dig in and look,” Perusse said. “If you’re not that kind of person, because it’s always been work, work, work, work, work, you’re not even aware that those opportunities exist, or that they could be fulfilling.”

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