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Aging and Mental Health

In this segment of KSMU's Sense of Community series, KSMU's Michele Skalicky addresses the topic of mental illnesses that affect seniors and how volunteering and staying active in other ways can help avoid them.

Dorothy Hasenmyer goes to Pittman Elementary in southeast Springfield twice a week to work with kids who are struggling with reading and writing…

sound of reading session

The retired teacher of 38 years works with 2nd and 3rd graders at Pittman and with a foster child who meets her at Council of Churches of the Ozarks.Hasenmyer is a volunteer with Reading Buddies, part of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program or RSVP at the Council of Churches.She’s been retired for ten years and recently moved to Springfield, MO from Springfield, Ill. She says volunteering with RSVP has helped her adjust to her new life…

"One of the ministers at our church called and wanted to know how I was adjusting, and I said, 'well, I missed working with children,' because after I retired, I had tutoring in my home, so an associate minister at our church told me about Reading Buddies and asked if he could give my name to her."

Hasenmyer is just one of many people in the Ozarks who find volunteering after they retire to be a way to give back while keeping their minds active and helping them to avoid experiencing symptoms of depression and loneliness.Carol Scott is education coordinator at RSVP. She says volunteering helps address a multitude of problems—including mental health issues—that can affect seniors...

"Research shows that people who volunteer, especially 60 and older, that they live longer, they're less depressed.There's a lot of nice social interaction that goes on with volunteering as well. There's a sense of satisfaction in givng back to the community."

As people age, they tend to develop physical problems such as loss of hearing and vision, joint problems and backaches. But Pam Stoetzel, assistant director of Transitions, part of Burrell Behavioral Health, says older adults can suffer from mental illness, too…

"Probably the most common one that we see is depression. As people age, they go through a lot of major changes in their life, and so, even if they haven't had a history of depression earlier, it's very common for them to experience situational depression. Going along with depression, we also see quite a bit of anxiety."

According to Stoetzel, depression in older adults can sometimes make a person appear to have dementia symptoms. They become forgetful and confused…

"And, if you can treat that depression, whether it be through medications, therapy or best is a combination of both, that's going to lift and those confusion, dementia type symptoms are going to lift as well."

Stoetzel says if an older person experiences any symptoms of mental illness such as depression or anxiety, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help…

"The older folks of today, a lot of them were still around in the Depression era--they were children then, and so they were kind of raised with that philosophy of to be depressed is a weakness and you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and so there's a real stigma for them to seek out help, but I think people are becoming more educated and they understand that it's a normal process to go through these changes and that it would be normal for anybody to have some adjustment problems with it and there's no shame at all in going and talking to someone about it that can help you."

She says there are things seniors can do to avoid depression and anxiety. One is to stay active, both physically and mentally…

"We always encourage folks to try to get out, to continue exercising whether that's just walking or joining a swimming group. We encourage them to join social types of groups, and there's alot of those now geared toward older adults. All of those are really great things."

According to Stoetzel, online social groups can help prevent loneliness and depression. She says older adults are becoming more savvy on the computer. Computer classes are available in the Ozarks, including at the Edge at the Midtown Carnegie Branch Library, which offers classes for free.And Stoetzel agrees that volunteering has some major advantages for seniors—it gets them out and keeps them both physically and mentally active…

"And seniors have so many skills and so much life experience that they can use to benefit others."

Meanwhile, Carol Scott with the RSVP program, says the community is benefiting from the many senior citizens who are volunteering in various organizations. Reading Buddies alone has 135 volunteers in 3 counties—Greene, Webster and Christian—who serve in about 40 schools.Dorothy Hasenmyer says volunteering gets her out of the house and helps her to feel that she’s continuing to make a difference in the lives of children…

"I might be getting more than the children are, I don't know, but to be able to use what I believe in so strongly, that every child can learn if we can use their strengths, so."

sound of reading

She considers volunteering an opportunity to give back what she’s been given. And she says it keeps her mind sharp. She plans to continue helping kids who are struggling with reading and writing as long as she can.For KSMU and the Sense of Community Series, I’m Michele Skalicky.