From the Kitchener-Waterloo Record Newspaper

Despair hits hard during holidays
Friday December 29, 2000
Rose Simone

The cases of two elderly men who committed suicide this Christmas season underscore the need for the community to reach out to their neighbours, particularly elderly citizens, mental health professionals said this week.

Just two days before Christmas, an 86-year-old Kitchener man suffering from depression jumped to his death from the top of a Kitchener parking garage.

On Christmas Day, a house explosion on Heather Avenue in Kitchener resulted when 87-year-old Janis (John) Waivods killed himself. Police found the gas line to the house had been dismantled, and Waivods died of carbon monoxide poisoning before the explosion.

The provincial fire marshal's office concluded Waivods killed himself, although regional police say they cannot confirm that.

Mental health professionals say depression is complex and has numerous causes.

They said factors such as illness or a sense of isolation caused by loss of physical mobility, or loss of memory functions, or loss of loved ones is more prevalent in the elderly population.

Cathy Brothers, executive director of the Catholic Family Counselling Centre, said older people, especially men, can be "a hidden group" susceptible to thoughts of suicide because they are no longer in the work world, where they can feel useful and find friends among colleagues.

Also, if they have children, they are grown and may not live nearby.

There are an average of 1,600 calls a month to the Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge distress line (745-1166). The number of calls is fairly consistent throughout the year, said Betty Boomer, associate executive director at the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Although the number of calls doesn't vary much from month to month, the Christmas season does "accentuate the loneliness people experience," Boomer said.

She said winter weather increases isolation among elderly people who have trouble getting out and about in the ice and snow. Becoming house-bound can add to depression, she said.

The depth of depression is more severe for people in all age groups, not just the elderly, around Christmas, Boomer said.

She said January can also be difficult because that's when credit card bills start coming in.

"There is a lot of pressure to buy presents, whether you have money or not, and people sometimes get themselves into credit problems and that increases the stress and feelings of hopelessness," Boomer said.

Also, heavier drinking over the holidays can contribute to the suicide rate because alcohol or drugs can lower the inhibitions people normally have to keep them from acting on those feelings, she said.

Relationship and family problems such as divorce or separation can also be more difficult to cope with when television is promoting the picture-perfect family.

Counselling centres, churches, senior citizens' centres, service clubs and other groups are out there, providing everything from counselling and friendly home visits to social outlets and transportation.

Unfortunately, many people, especially elderly people and immigrants, don't know what's available, or may be reluctant to call for help, local mental health health professionals said.

That's where neighbours and friends can help -- just by reaching out, making visits, getting someone who appears isolated out of the house, or putting the person in touch with community programs that can give them the support they need.

"A caring community and a supportive community makes for an easier life," Boomer said. "It doesn't solve all the problems, but it certainly helps to alleviate some of the more obvious problems of isolation."

Brothers points out that "anybody can be depressed if they get cut off from the supports in life," which is why people have to look out for one another.

"People are often in situations where they are a little bit more at risk if they (are) left alone long enough . . . so we all have to look after each other," she said.