This Longhorn is Working With Meals on Wheels to Help Senior Citizens With Depression

It was only a year ago that Brenda Wright, 69, found herself losing a battle with depression that had plagued her for decades. She was retired, lived alone, and lacked the motivation to leave her East Austin apartment—or even her bed—for days at a time.

With arthritis making it difficult to cook, oftentimes Wright’s only human interaction was with volunteers from Meals on Wheels Central Texas, a nonprofit that distributes meals to homebound older adults and people with disabilities. And in 2017, it was these volunteers who referred her to a new program, created in collaboration with The University of Texas Steve Hicks School of Social Work, that aimed to help homebound seniors like her struggling with depression. For five weekly sessions, she held video conferences with a mental health worker.

Since then, Wright has picked up embroidery, started birdwatching, and befriended her neighbors. For the first time in a long time, she says, she finally feels like she has a reason to be alive. “If I had stayed in my bed, I wouldn’t be here now,” Wright says. “Getting help let me know I needed to live. I actually enjoy my life now.”

Led by social work professor Namkee Choi, the program aims to tackle the higher rates of depression among homebound adults, who, according to a Cornell University study, experience geriatric depression at two times the rate of their peers.

It’s an issue that Choi saw firsthand as a Meals on Wheels volunteer in Buffalo, New York, almost 25 years ago. She says older adults often don’t seek help for depression, noting generational stigmas. “Even when they do want help, in many cases they have no transportation to therapy,” Choi says. “I needed to find a way to help them in their homes.”

In 2009, Choi received funding from the National Institute of Mental Health to conduct a study comparing video conference therapy to in-person therapy for seniors. Because Meals on Wheels already had the infrastructure to conduct in-home depression assessments, she reached out to the organization and soon they began offering the services to eligible recipients. If the seniors were experiencing depression and wanted to opt into the study, Choi would call them to explain the program.

Choi’s trained and licensed therapists conducted five to six sessions, free of charge to the participants, in addition to providing a laptop and wireless card for the video calls. This marked one of the first times this method of therapy was being conducted in the country. Inevitably, Choi was met with skepticism from colleagues in her field, who questioned whether older adults would take to the technology.

And while a few participants were reluctant to participate at first, Choi found that the response to video-conference therapy was overwhelmingly positive. “Older adults really loved it,” Choi says. “There were less distractions for them, the sessions were more focused, and it encouraged them to be comfortable using technology.”

After the success of the first study, Choi received a second grant and continued her collaboration with Meals on Wheels, this time focusing her study on whether effective treatment can be provided by bachelor’s-level professionals rather than master’s level providers who typically conduct therapy. The aim of her study seeks to address a national shortage of mental health care providers for the country’s large elderly population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, America’s senior population is on track to outnumber children for the first time in history by 2035. At the same time, the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice found that there’s a nationwide shortage in geriatric physicians, with the percentage of geriatric fellows decreasing by 22 percent in a five-year period.

Linda Perez, assistant vice president for client services at MOWCT, says that so far, the program has been effective. The organization plans to build it into their services starting next year.

“We’ve seen some clients who have taken to the program so well that they come off of our meal services,” Perez says. “A lot of times, their depression was so overwhelming that it took over their lives to the point they couldn’t go out or get up and cook.”

Prior to the sessions, Wright felt like she had tried everything. She visited doctors who prescribed different medications, and though they each helped for a short time, they never seemed like a solution. She felt stuck.

When Choi’s team came into her life, she says she thought it would be more of the same. But instead, her case worker helped her identify goals that had her looking toward the future. Lately, that’s meant making decorations for her granddaughter’s baby shower. After years of shutting people out, she’s pushing forward to see her grandchildren grow up.

“I started asking myself what I could do for [me],” Wright says. “It got me out of the house, it helped me meet people, it helped me appreciate life again.”


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