TORONTO — Evelyn Burns-Weinrib never intended to stick around long enough to help fellow seniors fight depression. In fact, Burns-Weinrib planned to throw in the towel in her own battle with the difficult foe. A woman with depression in her DNA, Burns-Weinrib reached the point several years back where she felt she could not go on.
She was essentially estranged from her two children, who both live outside the country. Her second husband had died. She had developed painful neuropathy in her legs and foresaw a future in which her cherished independence would be eroded. She had to give up her beloved dog, Angie, because she could no longer take her for walks.
So Burns-Weinrib methodically and purposefully planned to end her life. Over the course of a year, she gave away her possessions and her jewelry. She cancelled the lease on her apartment, planning to kill herself on the first day of the last month for which she would pay for the unit.
But even well-laid plans can go awry and Burns-Weinrib’s did. She survived her suicide attempt and, after undergoing treatment and counselling, has embraced another cause — helping other seniors suffering from crippling depression.
Burns-Weinrib, now 80, has helped to fund the development of a website devoted to the subject of late-life depression. The site was created by experts at Baycrest, an academic health sciences centre affiliated with the University of Toronto, and is hosted on the institute’s website.
She believes the need is great. Getting old isn’t easy, she notes in a nevertheless upbeat interview.
"You know what? The person who called it ‘the golden years’ was young," she remarks wryly.
"It’s very difficult to get older. Because getting older is made up of a lot of losses... We lose a lot of our physical ability, our mental ability. It creeps up on us. We lose family members, we lose friends."
"So even if you’ve never been depressed in your life, getting older can bring on depression or it can make existing depression worse."
Dr. Robert Madan agrees.
"Late life is full of its challenges," says Madan, Baycrest’s psychiatrist- in-chief.
However, Madan stresses the importance of distinguishing true depression from the sense of sadness people may feel when they lose a friend who has been part of their lives for decades, or reach the point where they must move out of their own home into a long-term care facility.
Feeling sad over the death of a friend or loved one is a normal reaction. Feeling unable to cope, disinterested in food, unable to sleep or unable to get out of bed — these are signs this is not mere normal grieving.
"The myth is ‘It’s normal to be this way in late life, so I should just accept it,"’ Madan says.
"Feeling sad around something that’s sad, OK, that’s probably normal. But if you’re feeling sad and if you have some of these other (symptoms), you should seek help... People need to know that depression is not just being upset about circumstances, that it’s an actual illness. And people tend not to know that in this cohort."
The goal of the website, found at www.baycrest.org/educate/mentalhealth/depression/, is to help people understand this distinction. It aims to educate both seniors and their families and friends about the signs to look for. There is even a self-test that people can use to get a sense of whether they may be suffering from depression and should see a health-care professional for further assessment.
Depression in this age group is not uncommon. A study by the Canadian Institutes for Health Information published in 2010 showed that 44 per cent of a sample of nearly 50,000 senior citizens living in residential care had a diagnosis of depression or symptoms consistent with the condition.
Another goal is to help dispel the myths and stigma around mental illness so that seniors suffering from depression will seek care.
"Depression is no different than having any other illness, whether it be Parkinson’s, pneumonia or a broken leg. There’s something wrong with part of the body," Madan explains.
"The myth is that depression is a weakness and ‘I should just be able to overcome this myself.’ You’d never think you could overcome a heart attack or stroke yourself."
Madan says some seniors who suffer depression are like Burns-Weinrib; they are people who have struggled with depression off and on through their lives. But there are other people who have their first bout of depression in late life.
Depression runs in Burns-Weinrib’s family. Her father suffered from it and eventually committed suicide. She experienced depression at points throughout her life and, when she could no longer cope at age 78, following in her father’s footsteps seemed to her to be the sensible option.
But her plan failed and she woke up in a hospital. Still determined to die, she refused to eat. When the hospital informed her she would be force-fed, Burns-Weinrib decided enough was enough and asked for a cup of coffee.
"I turned my life around. And life now is very valuable to me," she says with feeling.
Burns-Weinrib volunteers at Baycrest six days a week, manning a cash register in the facility’s cafe, giving the occasional lecture on living a good life and volunteering on its palliative care floor. "They call me an honorary staff member. I work the hours but no pay and benefits. But this is my life. This is my family."
Working with people who are dying and who often desperately want to live has helped solidify her new perspective on life.
"How can I forfeit the life I have when other people don’t have that choice? I have a choice," says Burns-Weinrib, who notes that last month marked three years since her failed suicide attempt.
"I’ve had three years that I didn’t think I would have, that I didn’t want. And now I’m thankful. And I’m content."
— The Canadian Press