"Do More, Feel Better": seniors helping seniors work through depression, loneliness

Hillsborough County is using a buddy system of sorts to help lonely and depressed older people find new enthusiasm for life.

It’s part of “Do More, Feel Better,” a multi-state research study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Hillsborough County’s Department of Aging Services has teamed up with the University of South Florida Department of Psychology to train seniors to help seniors pull out of their gloom. The five-year study is also taking in communities around the University of Washington and Cornell University.

“The study has volunteer older adults who are encouraging seniors who are exhibiting depressive symptoms to participate in activities that they like,’’ says Mary Jo McKay, nutrition and wellness manager with Aging Services.

Although the department also uses paid professionals to do the same thing, McKay says, “The goal is to show that these volunteer seniors can be as effective as a paid professional in helping seniors feel better and actively engage in enjoyable activities.’’

Enid Rubio, a member of the Brandon Senior Center, has coached a number of people and believes it’s been effective.

“As adults, due to illnesses or loss of a relative or loneliness, we forget to even look outside and enjoy the view,’’ she says. “Look at the clouds, even if it is listening to the birds, and doing things that you forgot that you enjoyed – writing, reading. Little by little, even if you have a disability, we can work with you.’’

Rubio, 61, can relate to those clients. She was disabled in a car crash 20 years ago.

“I had to retire when I was only 41. I use a walker, use a cane, use knee braces; I have safety bars at home – everything you need for a disabled person,’’ she says. “I’ve been through it myself, the depression and anxiety.’’

She meets with her clients weekly for nine weeks and talks about the symptoms of depression they’ve had recently. 

“We compare weekly their improvement by doing more activities that are enjoyable to them,” Rubio says.

The idea is to get them to focus outward instead of on themselves. And then they plan for the next meeting, creating an agenda for the following week.

Rubio says some clients have started gardening. They’re also encouraged to take
walks, talk with people, get in contact with relatives that they haven’t talked to in a while and get more involved with the community. 

“We encourage them to read, to color,” Rubio says. “If they have a hobby that they haven’t touched a while, restart it, but restart it in steps.’’

She says that if they have a walker, she’s not expecting them “to run a marathon, but to go outside and pick up the mail.”

“If they have a yard, go in the yard and just take a little walk,” Rubio says.
She realizes that depression tends to render the sufferer inert; they don’t want to do anything. And that’s the reason they do the agenda for the following week. The clients plan the activities they want to do.

And if they don’t want to do the activity that time, that’s okay, Rubio tells them.

“If you don’t feel like it, do not feel bad,’’ she says. “Don’t feel like you’re a failure. Tomorrow is another day.’’

For more information, go to Hillsborough County Department of Aging Services and Do More Feel Better
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Read more articles by Philip Morgan.

Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.