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Breakdown: Canada's mental-health crisis

When mental illness tarnishes your golden years

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These days, he's been sober for six months and he takes the bus up to the VISTA meetings every week.

But separated from friends, much of his family and his colleagues, he admits he is sometimes lonely. "As you get older, so many things hit you," he said.

Hazel Meredith, executive director of the Victoria branch of the B.C. Schizophrenia Society, has watched the stress of mental illness tear many families apart. For aging couples, caregivers are often taxed by their own growing frailty. She was once called from her office by a counsellor who had been meeting next door with an elderly client and his wife. The woman had slipped into a catatonic state.

"I thought she was going to die right in the office," Ms. Meredith recalled.

THE SPOUSE'S CHALLENGE

As a caregiver, Barry Baldwin, 77, has faced more challenges than most. Each time Mrs. Baldwin has had a psychotic episode, he becomes her target.

It's difficult to imagine, watching the two of them sitting close together as Mrs. Baldwin shared her story. Married now for 42 years, they shared a gentle intimacy even as she recounted her treatment of him when she is in the grip of psychosis.

When she is sick, she hates Mr. Baldwin. She's run away, called the police and made terrible allegations against him; she's told friends and neighbours she's divorcing him.

It's a trauma to recall the way she behaves toward her good husband when she is ill. "Unfortunately, I do remember," she said.

Mr. Baldwin has not always understood her illness - as they raised their two children, and then buried their son David, it was sometimes easier to avoid it. But he can separate the illness from his wife.

During the last episode, he was unable to drive because of a recent stroke. So he would take the long journey by bus from Sooke to Oak Bay to visit her in hospital. Knowing that once he was there, she would refuse to speak to him.

"When you go through deep waters like that, you get stronger as a couple," Mrs. Baldwin said, speaking more to him than to the reporter.

"It's less draining every time," he replied. "Now I know you'll get better."

HEALTH CARE // UVIC STUDY

When Rhonda Goldberg rushed to Rockyview General Hospital in Calgary last November, it was to attend to her father, who needed emergency care.

As he lay in the intensive-care unit on life support, her mother needed help, too. Ms. Goldberg was shocked to see how little understanding the highly trained medical staff displayed for her mentally ill mother.

Shirley Goldberg, 65, has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and has suffered from depression all her adult life. "We were trying to deal with my father dying and my mother wanting to end her life and she didn't want to leave his side," Rhonda said. "And this was a problem for the staff."

When Rhonda's father died in January of this year, the role of caregiver for her mother fell to the daughter. "His life revolved around whether my mom was feeling okay or not, whether he could work or not," she said. "And now my life revolves around my mother."

A new report from the University of Victoria's Centre on Aging shows the Goldberg family's experience is not unusual.

Seniors with addictions or mental illness are shortchanged when it comes to resources and treatment, said Holly Tuokko, one of the authors of the report. The study centred on caregivers of seniors with acute mental illness and addictions. It concluded there is a lack of housing and treatment facilities. As a result, the challenges are offloaded to caregivers who themselves have nowhere to turn.

Ms. Goldberg said there are programs available to help her mother, but only if she is willing to reach out for assistance. "There needs to be more outreach at the home; that's where it starts, that's where it ends," she said.

Justine Hunter

THE SERIES

Saturday

Children and mental illness,

by Erin Anderssen

and André Picard

Monday

A last resort for violent teens,

by Dawn Walton

Yesterday

How doctors discriminate

against mental illness,

by Carolyn Abraham

Today

Growing old with bipolar

disorder, by Justine Hunter

Tomorrow

Lonely lives in the institution,

by Erin Anderssen

Friday

Forcing adults into treatment,

by André Picard

Saturday

Faces of the breakdown,

a photo gallery by Charla Jones

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In Breakdown, The Globe and Mail documents the enormous, unaddressed cost of mental illness to Canadian individuals, families and society. The series closes with a search for solutions.

 

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