Specialist in Issues of Midlife & Older Adults

Monthly Archives: December 2014

Beating Holiday Depression – Joanne’s interview with Nancy for Pacific Sun

How to avoid depression during the holidays
by Joanne Williams

A half-sunny Sunday morning along the Mill Valley marsh path: A young woman leaned her bicycle against a tree, stepped up on a nearby bench and let out a loud scream of laughter, waving her arms in the air. Chasing the winter doldrums?

“Exercising in the fresh air is one of the best ways to chase away the holiday blues and all the guilt and ‘shoulds’ that pop up so much at this time of the year,” said Nancy Rhine, a marriage and family therapist and gerontologist.

“It’s easy to feel manipulated and overwhelmed during the holidays, when you’re pummeled by advertising and expectations that everyone else belongs to an idealized Norman Rockwell family,” said Rhine, who advises people to pause and get perspective on what’s really important to them during these sometimes superficially cheerful days and nights.

“There have always been human fears in this darkest time of the year,” Rhine said. “In ancient times people held spiritual celebrations, lit bonfires on hilltops, and danced to alter their mood and to remind them that the sun would return. Nowadays there is the most focus on the mundane, with a tendency to slip into overspending and overdrinking, and then depression.”

It’s no wonder we develop myths like Santa Claus. Some decorate a tree with twinkly lights, and others celebrate Hanukkah, also a festival of lights. When I asked around to find out solutions to the depression many experience at this time of year, I heard many ideas.

“I used to get depressed every December first,” said Mary C., a grandmother of nine. “There were so many expectations and no resources. Today I don’t shop,” she said. “I don’t believe in it.”

“I go to San Francisco to the theater, spend the night in the city and have breakfast with a friend,” a single man said. “And I stay away from parties where people drink too much.”

“I don’t read the news,” said another. “I watch sitcoms.”

“I put on lively music and go to funny movies,” Rhine says of herself. “Do what makes you feel good. Listen to upbeat music, watch comedies or other favorite movies, nurture yourself. Volunteer—helping others helps you as well as others. Give a gift of time. Teenagers who drive could offer to take seniors on a drive to see Christmas lights, or just visit them to bring cheer.”

“Also, remember that asking for and accepting help, if you need it, makes the giver feel good too—it’s a two-way street.” Exercise is a terrific way to chase the blues, “especially outdoors, in nature, and in sunshine if we have any,” Rhine has found. “I never understood bird-watching, but as I’ve gotten older, now I love it—science has shown that that activity lowers blood pressure and it just cheers you up!”

And if you get sick, which seems to happen when you need your energy most, rest and “let go” of demands—shift and adjust. There’s no shame in taking time for yourself—having to just “be” for a while and not “do” doesn’t negate your value as a human being.

“Meditation or prayer can help, too—it can give people a sense of purpose,” Rhine advises. “Talk to a pastor, a rabbi, a priest or a friend. One of the things we often learn as we grow older, after we’ve crashed and burned for over-doing for a few decades, is learning the value of pacing ourselves. And, listen to your ‘loving inner mother;’ sometimes the best answers come from within.”

Ask Joanne how she overcomes the holiday blues at letters@pacificsun.com.


Whistlestop930 Tamalpais Ave., San Rafael.
415/454-0964. www.whistlestop.org.

Marin Community Food Bank75 Digital Dr., Novato.
415/883-1302. www.sfmfoodbank.org.

Salvation Army Services Center351 Mission Ave., San Rafael.
415/459-4520.  www.salvationarmyusa.org.

Ritter Center16 Ritter St., San Rafael.
415/457-8182.  www.rittercenter.org.

Homeward Bound of Marin830 B St., San Rafael.
415/459-5843.  www.hbofm.org.

St. Vincent de Paul820 B St., San Rafael.
415/454-3303. www.vinnies.org.

Aging, is and always has been, a team sport!

green house projectI am a big fan of some of some of the leaders who I consider the pioneers in reshaping how we think of aging in this country. One was Dr. Robert Neil Butler, MD who first coined the word “ageism”, started the first geriatric medicine program in the country (at Mt Sinai Medical Center), was the first Director of the National Institute on Aging and won the Pulitzer Prize for his groundbreaking book on aging called “Why Survive? Being Old in America”. Sadly Dr Butler passed away in 2010. But he left us a legacy of his work.

Another leader who is still very active is Dr Bill Thomas, MD,  geriatrician and a professor at the Erickson School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He has founded two movements that aim to reshape nursing-home care: The Eden Alternative and the Green House Project. Dr. Thomas his wife developed the Eden Alternative in the early 1990’s as a philosophy to deinstitutionalize long term care facilities by alleviating the “three plagues” of boredom, helplessness and loneliness. In 2008, The Wall Street Journal named Dr. Thomas one of the 12 most influential Americans shaping aging in the 21st Century. US News and World Report described Dr. Thomas as a revolutionary, “With his startling common-sense ideas and his ability to persuade others to take a risk, this creative and wildly exuberant 46-year-old country doctor has become something of a culture changer–reimagining how Americans will approach aging in the 21st century.”

Here is a sample of some of Dr Thomas’s (for America) revolutionary statements on the plethora of dismal nursing homes in this country:

“One important way we can reduce the fear associated with communal living arrangements, and improve the lives of frail elders and their families, is to abolish nursing homes in America. Currently we have more nursing homes than Starbucks outlets. Our archipelago of institutional long-term care facilities houses 1.6 million elders and adults living with disabilities. Most of them are serving life sentences, stripped of privacy, independence and choice. Ironically, the buildings are aging even faster than the people in them. They won’t survive to house the coming boom of elders. Should we rebuild them, as thousands of developers are already doing, and subject another generation to the cruel embrace of the institution? 
The fact that so many people, whose only crime is frailty, are confined in this way is powerful evidence that we live in a deeply ageist society. We dread aging because we associate growing older exclusively with disability, depression, dementia and death. In fact, old age is a complicated life stage with abundant opportunities for growth, joy, meaning and worth. Around the world and through the ages, elders have proven their value as peacemakers, storytellers and sages. They are the glue that holds families and communities together, and we need them now more than ever. “

He writes this in response to the fear that so many old people have about living in groups, and rightly so given the vast majority of the existing models. But, he says, as in the title of this blog post, AGING IS A TEAM SPORT! How I have described it, along these same lines, is that “It takes a village!”, stealing from Hilary Clinton’s old book title. I have seen this over and over, that the highest quality of life belongs to those older people who have a loving and competent circle of family, friends, caregivers, church members, health professionals, etc around them when they need them. 

Older people nowadays want to stay home and “age in place”. This is understandable given the alternatives! It’s time for us to create warm, welcoming, vibrant group settings where individuals can have privacy and alone time for contemplation, and friendship and support and connection when they want that to. I’m sure we can figure this out. And we should because the boomers are fast coming down the aging track.

Dr Thomas has started the Green House Project, a new model aimed at creating a real home that provides care but also supports those seeking to redefine the worth and meaning of late life. With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, more than 100 Green House Project homes have opened in 32 states since 2003, and more than 100 others are in development.