Older Adults Fight Depression

Nov 18, 2008

As we age, thoughts of staying physically healthy and financially independent become more important. But for some older adults, mental illness can rob them of a healthy future. As part of our Project Milwaukee series on aging and wellness, WUWM’s Susan Bence meets with older individuals dealing with depression.

Janet with social worker Joan Yelanjian.

“I think that when I retired I wasn’t completely ready for the loneliness, the emptiness, being cut off from professional ties, work,” Jane says.

Jane is a proud and private person, but says she’ll talk a bit about the depression and anxiety she’s faced. It started when she retired from a career in education. She tried to keep busy volunteering, maybe too busy.

“I needed to pay more attention to me and what’s going on inside of me and it did take a crash to do that,” Jane says.

Jane reached out when she hit bottom. That’s when the 66-year-old found psychologist Julie Helmrich. We’re sitting in her Milwaukee office.

“You know we have a very ageist culture. There’s an awful lot of belief that if somebody hits 65 their IQ drops,” Helmrich says.

“Should a person expect to have a certain amount of feeling of loss and let’s say depression that comes with age or is that something that people can come out of?” I ask.

“I’m glad you asked that. No, depression is not age normative and it’s treatable. And this is one of the ageisms that’s out there, which is that, well you know, you’re old, you’re supposed to be depressed,” Helmrich says.

But Helmrich says the problem is a fair number of older adults don’t accept depression as something to be treated. You should be able to just get over it and move on.

“That’s a cohort of people that have a lot to be proud of and the things they’ve been able to achieve and accomplish look huge, and my little problem looks little, I should be able to fix it. So, I think the stigma is still strong,” Helmrich says.

Helmrich says Jane sees light at the end of her tunnel. They continue to meet regularly and Jane is doing things like taking college courses she cares about and writing poetry.

Across town, social worker Joan Yelanjian shows me a different face of depression. She’s paying 71-year-old Janet a visit at her second-floor flat. Every season, on Tuesdays and Fridays, Yelanjian bring coffee. Janet loves her coffee.

“I have high blood pressure,” Janet says.

But Janet thinks this one cup won’t hurt.

Settling into her small dining area, we’re surrounded by glass cabinets filled with fancy figurines, gifts Janet received when she retired from her 36-year career as an assembly line worker.

“I met a lot of people, because I worked all over the plant,” Janet says.

Gradually Janet shut those people out. That’s a symptom of the relentless depression she’s been fighting for years.

Yelanjian gently encourages Janet to talk.

“How is that feeling, because it was a little rocky the last session. You were starting to feel that loneliness again,” Yelanjian says.

“Yeah,” Janet says.

“You had the incident last week that you took two pills to sleep when you only needed to take one. So can you talk about how you’re feeling now?” Yelanjian asks.

“I’m feeling better,” Janet says.

“Do the holidays kick in some of them?” Yelanjian asks.

“The holidays are very lonely to me,” Janet says.

“How have you dealt with them in the past?” Yelanjian asks.

“Difficult,” Janet says.

“The last couple years, what did you do?” Yelanjian asks.

“Usually ended up in the hospital, because I didn’t want to hurt myself,” Janet says.

Janet’s social worker encourages her to look for the positive and reach out to a sister she’s been estranged from for years.

“We could go and meet her for lunch, if you would like, we could do that,” Yelanjian says.

Geriatrician Anna Lamnari

Anna Lamnari says it can be difficult to work through depression issues with older adults. She’s a physician with Wheaton Franciscan Medical Group, specializing in geriatrics.

“t takes a little bit of talking to a person to make them understand that this is not an unusual diagnosis. In fact, there are estimates that at least one third of us at some point in our life will be diagnosed with depression,” Lamnari says.

Lamnari says when it comes to older folks, some may have been depressed for decades but never sought treatment. Then when losses start piling on later in life, the pain becomes impossible to ignore. So when Lamnari sits down with her patients, she’s on the look out for symptoms.

“They lose their sleep, they lose their weight. They just feel no energy. I also look into other possible symptoms of depression such as loss of interest, loss of taking pleasure in things that usually brought them joy,” Lamnari says.

Lamnari says the good news is she sees older adults pull out of depression, with the right medication, psychotherapy, or both.