Program helps seniors with changes that come with aging

Share this Article


Arlena Miller, of Woodstock, stands beside a birdhouse, a replica of her residence made by one of her sons. Miller credits Connections, a support group for seniors, her church and family for pulling her out of a deep depression following the death of her husband. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Miller sits on her front porch and talks about how Connections and group therapy helped her through a difficult period in her life. The program is offered by Valley Behavioral Health. Dennis Grundman/Daily

By Natalie Austin — Northern VA Daily Staff Writer

WOODSTOCK “” Sitting on her front porch on a recent fall morning, Arlena Miller had a smile on her lips, quivering into a full-blown laugh as she talked about her clownish personality, tricks she played on past co-workers and the time a cart her husband was pulling overturned with her and a load of blackberries.

Inside her neat, little house, a sun room was dominated by an exercise machine. Miller, 75, quickly turned on a boom box to a Christian music CD and talked about how she would get going to tunes praising Jesus. Wreaths she had made were stacked on a table. She paints, quilts and plans to begin volunteering at adult homes.

“I like working with the elderly,” she says, making it hard to imagine she belongs in that demographic.
There are her church, volunteer work, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren.
It seemed the day planner for her golden years was full.
Two years ago, however, this little, carefree rocket of a woman was pulled down so low she thought about killing herself.
Her husband, John D. Miller Sr., died from breathing problems, after more than 55 years of marriage. Three days before, her brother-in-law died. A granddaughter was killed in a car wreck and a tractor overturned on her son.
“I just couldn’t take anymore. I hit rock bottom.”
She didn’t want to leave her house, crying jags lasted longer and longer. Her memory wasn’t what it used to be. She stopped eating.
She and her husband were “joined at the hips,” she says, trailing off.
There was no one to share funny things she had seen on TV, to talk about nature “” all of life’s little mundane events, better shared than dying on the vine. Her family, all of whom live closeby, became concerned. This wasn’t their carefree, little mom; this was a woman suffering from depression.

“I’d probably done myself in,” says Miller.

She went to her regular doctor for a checkup and he sent her to a mental health professional who referred her to Connections, group therapy for people 65 and over struggling with the changes that age brings. Part of Valley Behavioral Health Services at Shenandoah Memorial Hospital, the group meets Monday through Friday.

“It was hard to say I had depression. I felt incompetent; I was always a person who had control of myself,” says Miller.

She admits she was scared when she joined the group that first day, but it wasn’t long before the connection was made with others who had faced grief, loss.

When Connections opened in 2006, it was to meet the needs of the area’s growing elderly population, says Donna van Horn, a therapist with Valley Behavioral Health. Most seniors who walk through the doors of Connections feel anxious, overwhelmed and down.

“Those types of problems are not a normal part of aging,” says van Horn.

People, particularly the elderly, are reluctant to consider group therapy, she says, and initially may feel uncomfortable until they realize the benefits of talking problems over with others who feel the same way. A general assessment by a treatment team also is done on all seniors who attend Connections.

Major health problems, grief over being widowed, or the stress of caring for a sick spouse, are some of the issues older Americans deal with daily. Sometimes they need a little help doing it. So far, Connections has drawn more women than men, but men can really benefit from it, too, says van Horn.

Medication management and an emphasis on good nutrition, exercise and relaxation are stressed.

Finances and the general atmosphere of today’s culture may cause anxiety, she adds, for a population that depended more on bootstraps to pick themselves up rather than mental health care.

And, this population is growing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 36 million Americans are older than 65 and that number will reach 70 million over the next 25 years.

Along with physical health problems of this population, depression contributes to loss of daily functioning and a diminished sense of well-being in an estimated 20 percent, the CDC states. While 37 percent of seniors show signs of depression when they visit their primary care physician, many still aren’t receiving the care they need.

Seniors, at 20 percent, have the highest suicide rate in the country, according to the National Mental Health Association.

Many seniors believe depression is a character flaw or that it is normal for them, according to AARP, and don’t understand that it’s a serious medical disorder that can be treated.

“There are other normal problems that can contribute to depression and anxiety even if the person has never experienced them before,” says van Horn.

That is the key to the success of Connections, says Miller.

“I think a lot blame it [depression] on old age, I really do, but it’s not old age, it’s a condition,” Miller says.

Miller says she understands more about depression and the value of therapy with others. Sometimes, she says, even though you have a loving family, you need a stranger to talk to.

“It’s because everybody there in that class is in the same condition you are in, whether it be from death, divorce or whatever the case may be,” she says. “People have the same down feelings you feel and you talk about them and they understand.”

When Miller feels herself getting down, she says she thinks of others who have problems, such as a neighbor who had a stroke and can’t talk.

She also gets busy. Recovering from a bowling injury to her arm, she went to her son’s house recently to play a bowling game on his Nintendo Wii gaming system. The giggles get Miller when she talks about the little character on the video screen looking crazy until she learned how to play the game.

“I’m such a fun person and that is one of the things that Connections brought back to me,” she says.

Posted in: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply