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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

to Seniors Facing Depression

Jane Thomas

Reprinted from "Alcohol" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 2 (9), p. 36-37

Addressing the unique needs of LGTB seniors
When Richard Matthews became clinical director of the Seniors Well Aware Program (SWAP) in October 2005, he saw a need for expanded services for lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual (LGTB) seniors living in Vancouver’s West End. He wanted to better address depression and the particular issues of shame, stigmatization, trauma and abuse that have led some seniors to use alcohol or drugs to cope.

Mr. Matthews is no stranger to addiction. He overcame his own addictions almost 25 years ago and was a SWAP counsellor in the Downtown Eastside for 10 years before taking on his current role.

“What’s unique about LGTB seniors is that many have an added element of shame, because when they were younger, their sexuality wasn’t as accepted in society as it is today,” says Matthews.

Funded by Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health authorities, SWAP is a non-profit society that has served adults 55 and older for 25 years. SWAP staff includes nurses, social workers, psychologists, addiction counsellors, art therapists and gerontologists.

The society works with about 200 clients each year across Vancouver. Its mission is to promote the physical, mental, social, environmental, sexual and spiritual well-being of seniors facing unique challenges, including social isolation, substance misuse and abuse, and elder abuse. These challenges are addressed through outreach, withdrawal management (where appropriate), and individual and group counselling, advocacy and community development.

In November 2005, SWAP hired a counsellor who specializes in LGTB issues to focus on the West End. Each of the organization’s outreach counsellors sees about 20 clients on a weekly basis throughout the year.

“It’s not a quick fix,” says Matthews. “I believe we’re dealing with many individuals whose depression—or perhaps more accurately, despondency—isn’t routed in a chemical imbalance, but rather in the social conditions they’ve had to face. It takes time to look at their life history and put things in context.”

Providing a creative outlet for seniors

Counselling can be a very effective solution when facing depression. However, not everyone is comfortable talking about his or her mental health, so when Mr. Matthews learned how art was helping sex trade workers in the Downtown Eastside express themselves, he was inspired to find out more, with SWAP clients in mind.

After researching art therapy for seniors and learning there is evidence some seniors prefer, and make progress through, creative and non-verbal expression, SWAP hired two registered art therapists to carry out pilot programs.

Art therapist Debora Broadhurst has led one group, which meets for two hours each week. Participants are existing SWAP clients. They have the choice of creating with pastels, markers, collage, paints and more. Each week a new focus within the overall theme of health and wellness is introduced.

Already there have been a few breakthroughs. Within the first five weeks, participants:

  • Overcame anxiety about trying this new way of expressing themselves or about experimenting with new materials

  • Expressed goals and interests they wish to include in their lives again

  • Expressed special memories and enjoyable activities in their lives

  • Identified sensory experiences that helped them move beyond depression when they surfaced

“Putting goals down on paper helps make them more concrete,” says Broadhurst. “The artwork is creative and uses imagination, which is a big change from the regular routine many people get caught up in. It’s an invigorating and rewarding process.”

With signs of success in Vancouver, SWAP’s art therapy services have already expanded to Burnaby. “We’re encouraged that this is a useful way to help seniors in general to deal with their thoughts about mental health,” says Matthews.

The Seniors Well Aware Program’s mandate is to develop and deliver specialized services to clients over the age of 55 who may be experiencing problems due to misuse/abuse of alcohol, prescriptions and/or over the counter medications. For more information on SWAP in Vancouver phone 604-6334230, in Burnaby call 604-524-8994, or for all locations e-mail [email protected] or visit

Seniors and alcohol did you know..

  • Alcohol is the drug most commonly used by older adults

  • 58% of women and 73% of men over the age of 65 consume alcohol

  • Alcohol use does not cause difficulties in the lives of most older adults, but:

    • 6-10% of older adults experience alcohol problems

    • the rates of problems are much higher (18-33%) among older people with mental health problems, those coming to emergency departments, and those in geriatric units

    • only a small percentage of older adults with alcohol problems receive help

  • An alcohol problem for an older adult can be a long-standing situation, or one that developed recently. For some people, drinking has been their way of responding to crises throughout their lives

  • As people age, their bodies metabolize alcohol more slowly

  • Alcohol adversely interacts with over 150 medications commonly prescribed to older adults

  • As with younger persons, alcohol misuse among older adults may lead to deterioration in the person’s health, family and social stability, and the person’s ability to cope with daily life. Alcohol problems often overlap with physical and mental health, housing, and financial difficulties

For more on understanding alcohol problems in later life as a community issue, and how to help older adults, see the Best Practice Information Sheets series (2004) at
Source: adapted from the Best Practice Introduction information sheet

About the Author

Jane is a communications consultant working with Vancouver Coastal Health

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