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Behind closed doors, mental health crises take toll

Published December 22, 2006


Betty Dobias prayed all the way home from dinner the night she planned to ask her husband to see a doctor.

He was losing his memory, acting out. This wasn't like him. And within a few years, Dobias' dreams of their retirement turned from traveling the world to caring for her husband like he was a child.

After her late husband's diagnosis with Alzheimer's disease, Dobias cared for him alone. She stayed awake sometimes two days at a time. She hid his condition from their far away children.

"You just don't want anybody to think anything is wrong," she said. She suffered alone.

"All of it turns into despair," she said.

Finally, on the brink of collapse, she sought help for herself.

Her husband died in 2000.

She credits the network of family, friends and her church for helping her get through it.

- - -

Mental health experts say retirement communities need services to help residents cope with crises they often keep hidden behind drawn curtains and a cheerful facade.

This month, in what many say is long overdue, an office devoted to depression, anxiety, dependence and other problems opened in Sun City Center.

Mental Health Care Inc. of Tampa scheduled its first client last week at its office in the Sunhill Medical Arts Building.

The office, at 4020 State Road 674, will be staffed with a social worker every Wednesday to handle problems including depression, domestic violence and behavioral disorders among adults and children, said David West, the program manager for the agency's family resource centers.

Once the agency hires a licensed clinician, that person will take over counseling duties at the Sun City Center office and work out of the agency's access center at 3018 N U.S. 301 in Riverview, which opened in the spring.

Depending on demand, the agency is prepared to add staff and hours to the Sun City Center office in the future, West said.

- - -

However, getting retirees to use the services can be a challenge.

"Our generation has a stigma against it," said Ken Barringer, chairman of Sun City Center's Coalition for Mental Health and Aging. Barringer has been instrumental in drawing MHCI's interest to the area.

"Our approach from childhood training says grin and bear it, toughen up, don't wash your dirty linen in public. Don't admit to weakness because we're strong," Barringer said of retirees, particularly those of the World War II generation.

Yet retirement can spark or exacerbate a number of problems, he and other experts say.

Barringer, a retired clinical psychologist, has taught classes in Sun City Center on mental health and healthy aging, and the coalition has spurred a number of support groups the past few years.

Some retirees suffer from an identity crisis after leaving a job that has defined them for decades, he said.

Retirees must find a new sense of purpose and self-worth, which is not the same thing as packing every moment of the day with activities, he said.

Others try to cope with life apart from their adult children and grandchildren. Also, some married couples struggle to adjust to their newfound time together.

"Sometimes it's increased tension in a marriage," he said. "Such as, 'I married him for better or worse, not breakfast, lunch and supper.' "

Some spouses become depressed or overwhelmed while caring for an ailing mate or upon the death of a partner, he added. One's own physical health problems in aging cause anxiety.

For others, ongoing mental health battles ignored during working years become more noticeable in retirement.

While many adjust well to their new stage of life, Barringer believes some turn to alcohol to cope or slowly kill themselves.

"It's not expressed in overt ways like someone shooting themselves or taking an overdose of drugs," he said. "It's often through health neglect ... being very careless about taking pain or antidepressants medication, or sometimes it's dehydrating and not drinking enough fluid and living carelessly about the way they manage their life. They die of just being indifferent."

Barringer said the coalition wants retirees to discuss their problems with each other in groups or other ways that work.

"I think it's a matter of talking about it and coping and finding some mechanisms that help them," he said.

The coalition holds its next community forum on mental health and aging Feb. 28 at United Methodist Church in Sun City Center. The forum is also co-sponsored by LifeCare Ambassadors, a nonprofit service organization working to improve the quality of life in South Hillsborough County.

The forum will focus not just on problems and mental health issues, but also on the positive aspects of aging for seniors and preretirees, Barringer said.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at 661-2441 or

Fast Facts:


Help available

For more information on the Sun City Center's Coalition for Mental Health and Aging, its support groups or its planned Feb. 28 forum, call Ken Barringer at 633-8490.

To make an appointment with Mental Health Care Inc.'s offices in Sun City Center or Riverview, call 744-8880.



[Last modified December 21, 2006, 07:24:02]

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