Story of Evelyn Burns-Weinrib
This is a candid story of major depression in late life, including a suicide attempt
I have a new-found and deep appreciation for life. I will fight for life regardless of my health and I will ask for help when I need it.
I am sharing my story because I am now an advocate for seniors mental health issues. I want the discussion of depression put on the table, not kept under it.
Depression runs in my family. My dad suffered with depression and when I was a young girl (I’m the eldest of four children) he would talk to me about how he was feeling. In those days little was known about mental illness. I knew something was wrong but I didn’t know how to help him. At the age of 82 he took his life.
Growing up I was energetic and athletic. I went back to high school and then to teacher’s college as a married woman and mother of two children. My first marriage ended in divorce and my second husband died. Then, at age 65, after teaching for 35 years I was forced to retire.
To keep my mind active and stay busy I started volunteering. I’ve been a volunteer at Baycrest Health Sciences for 12 years and I now work in the coffee shop, the palliative care unit, and the nursing home.
In my mid-70’s I was diagnosed with neuropathy, a disease that affects the nerves in my legs, making it difficult to walk. I had to start using a cane.
I was 78 and I felt I was losing control of my health and my life. As an independent woman I felt as though my declining health would leave me with nothing positive to look forward to. I did not want to become dependent on others or feel like a burden to family or friends.
My symptoms of depression worsened and spent a year planning my suicide. I began by giving away my things, making final changes to my will and determining my bequests. Due to the neuropathy, I was forced to give up my beloved dog, Angel, to be cared for by a friend. This decision was hard because Angel had been my constant companion, volunteering with me for 10 years. I then provided the Baycrest staff with a list of numbers to call in the event that I did not come to work one day.
It was a Thursday evening when I tried to commit suicide. I was then admitted to the Baycrest inpatient psychiatric unit and received treatment.
It’s now three years later and I have been receiving treatment with ongoing psychotherapy. The treatment has been very effective and got me back on my feet and back to work.
It took courage, but I am back volunteering on the palliative care unit. I talk to people who are terminally ill and often in pain. Some are still quite young and they know they are dying, but every day they fight to live. Their passion has given me an appreciation for life that I didn’t have before. I am changed.
I am not taking medication for my neuropathy. Instead, I am facing my pain and working through it. I continue to use my cane, but if I end up needing a wheelchair I will get myself an electric scooter and manage the best I can. I am no longer afraid to ask for help when I need it. It has made all the difference.
I continue to speak to vulnerable seniors every day. I’m 81 years-old and I know first-hand the challenges they face and the sense of losing of control over your life. Any or all of these things can trigger late-life depression or worsen an existing depression.
Depression needs to be talked about.
I will talk about it whenever and wherever I can.
Story of Don
A story of late-life depression after unexpected retirement.
Life was good. I was 66 and happily married, with a daughter and a granddaughter. I was a financial professional and I liked my job. Then one day, quite unexpectedly, I was ‘downsized’.
“Don’t take it personally - it’s just business,” they said. But retirement is a big decision I wasn’t prepared for so I took the life-changing verdict badly.
I struggled with the adjustment, but I went through the motions and did all the right things. I attempted a new career path, but it didn’t work out. And I always felt really bad when contacts didn’t bother to get back to me. Eventually, I was taking jobs that paid minimum wage just to help me feel productive.
My new circumstances had me questioning my self-worth. I was having feelings of regret about things I could have done but didn’t. I soon started questioning everything I did and was troubled by thoughts like “What have I come to?”
My sense of humour helped me through some difficulties, but eventually my low mood progressed beyond my ability to mask it.
On bad days I wanted to totally fold in on myself and curl up in my chair, turn off the lights and go to sleep.
At my worst I felt as though I was stuck in thick, oily goo. It was as if each time I lifted a foot the goo got dirtier and thicker and it eventually led me to a dark place.
For a long time I chose not to talk to anyone about how I was feeling. Instead, I kept to myself not wanting to worry my family or be a burden to them. I recalled going through brief episodes of depression earlier in my life, but nothing like this. Because my daughter had experienced psychological illness I finally found the courage to confide in her. She understood and it was comforting.
The depression snuck up on me. I didn’t realize how much it was impacting my behaviour and affecting my memory but my wife and daughter became concerned and made an appointment to have me evaluated for dementia.
It was during the evaluation process that the psychiatrist recognized my symptoms and made a formal diagnosis of late-life depression – not dementia.
The diagnosis was a relief, but it still took time for me to accept my illness, understand the causes and learn how to manage it. It has taken patience and perseverance, but being properly diagnosed and treated has made all the difference in my life.
I have fully recovered from this episode of depression. I was prescribed an antidepressant that worked well for me, and I continue to take it to prevent getting depression again. I also participated in Interpersonal Psychotherapy and worked with a psychiatrist who was understanding and non-judgmental. Our discussions have helped me get to the real issues. I can now see that there were a number of events, like coping with arthritic pain, that may have enhanced my depression, but the real cause was the trauma of my imposed retirement.
I have learned to compartmentalize my anxiety, arthritis and depressive symptoms. Being educated about late-life depression has helped.
I would encourage anyone who is having a similar experience to look for the light at the end of the tunnel – it’s there!
Proper diagnosis and treatment have been the answer for me.