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Depression in the Elderly - In Search of a Secular Church

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"Any person over seventy five should have the right to end his life", says 87 year old George. A disturbing thought echoed by "tired of life", 93 year old Joyce.
"I think there should be an option for old people like myself to go to Dignitas and put an end to this... " she tells me. Taken aback by my shocked expression she kindly reassures me that "it is not as dramatic as it sounds... I am not terminally ill or anything like that, I am just tired of life... I pray I don't go on to 103".

"What would you say is the main reason for feeling this way?" I ask her.

"There is no enjoyment in life anymore", she replies, "my husband died years ago and I live alone... my friends are gone or on death's door and I am tired of doing nothing... just surviving from day to day."

Joyce tells me how much she resents depending on others "for everything" and becoming a burden to her daughter who needs to do her shopping, take her to the surgery, hospital appointments, collect her medication, lose sleep over her having yet another fall - "it is not fair on her... it depresses me", she says.

I reassure her that despite the undeniable strain, her daughter supports her willingly but Joyce interrupts me to insist that I am missing the point, "it's not her, its me" she says decisively as her intelligent eyes look straight into mine, "I don't want this... honestly Hannah, I don't see the point of living like this... if it were up to me I would end this tomorrow".

George too finds life to be void of any joy or pleasure and resents living "just to survive from one day to the next.. with no enjoyment in life". This charming former head teacher who copes admirably well with the strain of caring for his dementia stricken wife, cannot deny his depression, telling of a downward spiral that started at the age of 73 when he, as well as friends around him started falling ill.

George and Joyce are not alone. Their quietly sad existence is shared by many elderly who feel they are 'sentenced' to a long life. Many now live well into their 90's (babies born today are expected to live to 150!)

We cannot stop science and medicine advancing but we must consider the quality of life in these thirty, forty post retirement years.

We are social beings and interacting with others is crucial to our functioning and mental health. The loss of active family connections and any sense of community, inevitably lead to depression so the question is how do we bring socializing back into these people's lives and can a sense of community actually be established?

As I ponder this I am struck by the clear difference between those elderly who belong to a church and those who do not. Those who have over the years built a relationship with fellow church goers, seem to have a second family of 'brothers and sisters'. They feel part of a community and enjoy a strong sense of belonging.

One of the most heart warming experiences I witnessed was when an 83 year old lady fell ill and missed her regular Sunday church service. Her fellow church members arrived at her house with food and laughter. During the week that followed they did her shopping, visited and kept her company. When it was clear she would not be able to attend church by herself any longer they arranged to collect her from home and take her back so she does not miss her cherished weekly service.

I witnessed this kind of community spirit and support within other churches and I came to wonder what the secular equivalent to this caring community spirit is (any thoughts Richard Dawkins?)

Many of elderly people I talked to have indeed made friends at various clubs and activities but do not regard others as 'brothers and sisters', they certainly do not feel part of a community there.

I am an atheist myself and cannot stress enough that this is not a case of a religious vs secular lifestyle but simply my reflection on an observation made over a long period of time.

I also noticed a significant difference between those living in sheltered accommodation and those living alone. Residents of sheltered accommodation housing form relationships over many weeks, months and years and a sense of community does build up.

Some of the sheltered accommodation set ups I visited actively nurture daily get togethers where conversation, games and fun interaction take place. I have seen the faces of residents light up as the grand children of a fellow resident entered the gathering hall and lifted everyone's spirit. One resident, on her way to residents' coffee morning, aided by her walking frame has told me that if she didn't make the effort the "others will be calling to see where I am".

Sheltered accommodation is costly but within these housing set ups, it is just the one (paid) individual who overlooks the daily get togethers, which in turn make the difference between isolation and a true sense of belonging. I wonder if through AgeUK and other relevant bodies, we can promote affordable 'joint living' housing for post retirement years and perhaps arrange for volunteers to organize daily/weekly get togethers. This will not resolve all old age issues but will tackle isolation induced depression head on. Anti-depressants may ease some of the symptoms but are not the solution.

I strongly feel that the elderly's understandable, often stubborn refusal to leave their family home works against them. What good is the comfort of your loved home when you are simmering in boredom and bitter solitude? I have talked to several 'former refusers' who lived to tell me that the move to a more social housing has improved their lives no end. "I actually talk to people now", one 76 year old tells me, "when I lived alone there were times when I wouldnt talk to another human being for days".

We need to urgently rethink post retirement. By not taking action we are allowing thoroughly unhappy, depressed individuals live life with a wounded spirit; many of the people I talked to chose the word 'worthless' to describe how they feel.

We owe our elders a sense of belonging. If we choose not to act, we should not be surprised when many see no point in living and express a wish to end a joyless existence.

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