Elderly depression: ‘It’s heartbreaking’

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(MPR Photo/Chris Welsch)

Counselor Corrie Brown travels all over Todd County talking with older people about their mental health. “The most common problems I see are depression and anxiety,” says Brown, who is the community outreach coordinator for Lakewood Health System’s Reflections program. “If you are a white male over the age of 65, you are more likely than anyone else to kill yourself.”

Brown says it’s tough sometimes to get the elderly to accept mental health services. “I see a lot of stoic, German, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps stuff,” she says. “There are a lot of barriers.”

Even if someone wants help, their insurance program might not cover treatment or the co-pays could be high. The patient may not have easy transportation to the doctor’s office, or the person might think that being depressed is just part of getting old.

According to a December 2009 article in Minnesota Physician by Lakewood’s Dr. Mark Holub, “Although 13 percent of our population is over the age of 60, their utilization of mental/behavioral health services is much less than expected. Elderly account for only 7 percent of all inpatient psychiatric services, 6 percent of community mental health services, and 9 percent of private psychiatric care… Clearly, this population’s needs for mental health services are not being met.”

Brown will travel to any older person’s home for an evaluation free of charge. “I try not use psychiatric words with them,” she says. “I use words like ‘down in the dumps’ or ‘feeling sad’ or ‘blue.’ That gets people talking. People of this generation who are rural, they didn’t grow up in an age where everybody had a therapist.”

But convincing the potential patient may be just half the task. “I assess them and I have services for them,” says Brown. “And then I can’t help them because they can’t afford the co-pay. For money this person could be getting help. Sometimes people say ‘It would just be easier if I wasn’t around.’ It’s heartbreaking.”

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