Putting squeeze on depression

CHAMPAIGN – In the long-running Peanuts skit, Lucy dispenses advice for 5 cents from her lemonade stand with a sign reading, "The Doctor is in."

In this case, the advice and the lemonade are free, and there's no actual stand.

Social workers and public health nurses are visiting senior citizen centers with pitchers of lemonade to broach the subject of depression among the elderly.

"It's kind of a takeoff on that old adage, 'When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,'" said Mark Driscoll, associate director of mental health and substance abuse services for the Champaign County Mental Health Board.

Though it may sound trite, the subject is anything but. Depression among seniors is real and far too common, said Charlene Stevens, a nurse with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. But it doesn't have to be.

"Depression is not a normal part of aging," she said.

To raise awareness about the issue, the Champaign County Coalition for Mental Health and Aging came up with the idea of a traveling "lemonade stand" that would visit senior living centers, health fairs and community centers.

"The thought was to do something other than just pass out information, something where we could have an opportunity for some kind of exchange and conversation," Driscoll said.

So far, it seems to be working, Stevens said. Seniors love the chance to sit and socialize while sipping lemonade, and health advocates usually wind up referring one or two people for more help.

Aging brings with it a series of losses and isolation, Stevens said. Children leave home and move away, friends and family members die, the body starts to fail.

Poor eyesight may mean a loss of driving privileges, deepening the sense of isolation.

Depression also carries a stigma, and many elderly try to work it out themselves rather than seek help, she said.

"People who have lived through World War II and the Great Depression still have really strong pioneer spirits," she said. "They are really individualist, and they are awesome in their ability to survive.

"However, there's a certain percentage of individuals who are sad and live an isolated life," and they may see it as punishment for something they did earlier in life, she said. "They do a lot of self-blaming."

A flier handed out at the sessions urges seniors to get help. "Depression is more than being sad," it says. "It is not something that you 'should' get over by yourself. Depression is a medical condition that can be treated."

The lemonade stand is manned by volunteers from all the coalition members – the mental health board, The Pavilion, Circle of Friends Adult Day Center, Peace Meal, Senior Services of Champaign County, and Family Service of Champaign County's Senior Resource Center.

The program piggybacks on a public health initiative that sponsors health-screening clinics in all the senior high-rises in Champaign-Urbana. That's made the seniors more receptive to the lemonade stand, Stevens said.

"These people know us. They trust us," she said. "They open up, and it can be very successful."

Volunteers begin by bringing in two pitchers of lemonade – one sweetened, one not – and introducing the concept of the lemonade stand. It sometimes elicits giggles, Stevens said, but it also starts the conversation rolling.

At a recent session at Washington Square, Stevens and public health nurse Carole Murphy set up the lemonade stand in a sunny room decorated with holiday tablecloths, vases of poinsettias and a Christmas tree.

Stevens asked resident Ora Ward, "When you get lemons in life, what do you do?"

"Make lemonade," replied Ward, 69. "I heard that before you were born."

Ward and others acknowledged that they do feel depressed from time to time, or they know residents who are.

"There's some who don't even get out of their apartment," said Ward. "I get depressed during the winter because I can't get out as much. I don't leave my apartment after 5 at night."

Some residents wandered in and out, but others stopped to sit and chat. Three discussed serious mental-health issues, and one broke down in tears while talking. Stevens said they talked to about 20 people that day and made one referral.

Pat Callahan, who's lived at Washington Square for four years, said the lemonade stand is a "good thing," and she suggested the coalition sponsor educational lectures, too.

"Sometimes people feel sad and they don't think it's depression," she said.

The project is developing a support group where individuals can get more information or refer a neighbor for help.

"There's many possibilities, and this is just the beginning," Stevens said.

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