It was March of 2012, and Betsy Mathies' doctor had just given her the diagnosis she'd been fearing: Parkinson's disease. First, the tears started, she says. And then: "I remember I said, 'Oh shoot!' and he asked me if I wanted to say something stronger than that, and I said, 'I'd like to start, but I might not be able to stop — it would be F-bomb city.' "
It was March of 2012, and Betsy Mathies’ doctor had just given her the diagnosis she’d been fearing: Parkinson’s disease. First, the tears started, she says. And then: “I remember I said, ‘Oh shoot!’ and he asked me if I wanted to say something stronger than that, and I said, ‘I’d like to start, but I might not be able to stop — it would be F-bomb city.’ ”
Her touch of wittiness at such a distressing time helped Mathies lay the framework for coping with the debilitating and life-changing disease. “Find some humor in it,” says the Centennial resident. “Sometimes, you gotta laugh at it.”
Although dark days are inevitable, Mathies has since handled the emotional pitfalls of having Parkinson’s with an array of tools. She takes advantage of a large support system of family and friends, works out a few days a week with a trainer, golfs regularly and takes an anti-depressant. She’s also armed herself with knowledge about her disease, which she uses to help other newly diagnosed Parkinson’s patients. “I feel like I’ve taken it pretty well,” Mathies says. “By the time you’re 56, you’ve had a fair amount of experiences in your life, and they all lead up to then. I think I just felt strong enough to handle it.”
“You’ve got to look at it not as a pit you’ve fallen into, but more in terms of dips and turns on this path you never thought you’d be on. You’ve got to learn how to manage your situation when you’re down in the valley, and in that process, know you’re going to come back up again.” — Luci Draayer, a licensed clinical social worker with the Colorado Neurological Institute
If more baby boomers would take Mathies’ healthful approach to combating life’s major pitfalls, today’s dark statistics might brighten. According to a 2012 Institute of Medicine report, between 5 and 8 million seniors — a conservative estimate, according to the report’s authors — have one or more mental-health or substance-abuse disorder. Add to that a May 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing a surprising surge in suicide attempts among baby boomers — a rise brought to the public attention with the recent suicide of comedian Robin Williams — and it’s clear: “The burden of mental illness and substance abuse disorders in older adults in the United States borders on a crisis,” the IOM report states.
While the reasons are complex, experts point to an unprecedented number of challenges facing the senior population for fueling the crisis, among them, grief and loss (of health, spouse, friends and identity), isolation, financial stress, chronic pain and substance use. “Think about a 60-year-old person who is let go from a career that they had planned to remain at for another 10 years,” says Joni Thompson, a licensed clinical social worker with the Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network. “They lose income, a social network, an employment identity, daily structure, etc. A major change of that magnitude often results in a domino of negative events.”
Add to that widespread chronic disease, including unprecedented cases of diabetes, obesity, arthritis and heart disease, and the picture becomes more focused. Williams, who’d long battled substance abuse and depression, was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s. “Almost one in four people have at least one chronic condition,” says Luci Draayer, a licensed clinical social worker with the Colorado Neurological Institute. Take the regular “boomer dynamics” described above, and then put a disease on top of it, Draayer says. “Life can get kind of crazy.”
Positive mind | Positive bonds
So how does someone face all of these challenges and still maintain mental wellness? A lot of it, says Draayer, has to come from within — especially if your reality, like Mathies’, involves a chronic disease. “You’ve got to look at it not as a pit you’ve fallen into, but more in terms of dips and turns on this path you never thought you’d be on. You’ve got to learn how to manage your situation when you’re down in the valley, and in that process, know you’re going to come back up again.”
A vital part of that, she adds, is “developing a framework from the get-go that includes paying attention to your emotions … if you don’t tend to the emotional part of yourself, this whole thing is going to catch up to you.” Sometimes that framework “means medication and sometimes it means needing to talk with someone — a third party that might not be the caregiver.”
The most important thing, Draayer says, is that boomers don’t “close the shutters on the world” and become isolated. Thompson agrees, describing habits of boomers who live well and maintain good mental health: “They maintain a sense of purpose through prosocial involvement — committee activities, volunteer work, positive family attachments, spiritual and/or community engagement — as well as a good alliance with health care providers who take the time to provide education and support.”
Volunteering has been part of Mathies’ mental-health formula. She pours her energy into advocacy and fundraising work for the Colorado Neurological Institute and Michael J. Fox Foundation and also leads a support group for newly diagnosed patients. “I don’t want it to just totally be all I am, but the camaraderie between people who have (Parkinson’s) is special,” Mathies says. “That kind of community has been really important.”
Mental Health Resources
- depression and/or anxiety; feelings of hopelessness, nervousness, restlessness and/or worry
- sleep disturbances
- appetite disturbances and/or weight gain or loss
- feeling sad, lonely or hopeless (though many seniors won’t report this)
- an increase in physical complaints (headaches, stomach problems, unattributed pain)
- becoming withdrawn or experiencing relationship difficulties or greater conflict
- becoming irritable or lethargic (especially if using narcotics)
Suicide Prevention Lines
- National Hopeline Network: 800-784-2433
- Spanish speaking suicide hotline: 800-784-2432
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
- Veterans peer support line: 877-838-2838
- A partnership between Seniors’ Resource Center, Jefferson Center for Mental Health and the Mental Health Partners.
- 866-217-5808, www.srcaging.org/mentalhealth.shtml
- Connects older adults to community resources such as food, transportation and other assistance. Senior Reach trains community members who have regular contact with older adults — such as postal carriers, grocery clerks, pharmacists, police officers, utility workers, bankers or apartment managers — to watch for signs that an individual might need assistance.
Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network (multiple locations)
- 24/7 Mental Health Emergency/Crisis Intervention Line: 303-730 3303
- 303-730-8858, www.admhn.org/Services/Adults/Adults60.aspx and http://www.seniorreach.org/AD/
- Offers the Senior Reach program (see above), mental health assessments, counseling, group and individual therapy, psychiatry and medication services, a senior peer program and nursing home services.
Colorado Neurological Institute
- 303-788-4010, www.theCNI.org
- Provides support, therapies and counseling for patients diagnosed with neurological conditions.
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