'Falling through the cracks': Tragic death sparks program to help people adjust to late-life challenges

The daughter of Cathy Curtis has spearheaded a new program with the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba aimed to fill a gap in services for people between 50 and 70 years old struggling with mental health issues.

Turning Pages aims to help people 50-70 years old struggling with mental health problems

Cathy Curtis's body was found in Sturgeon Creek on May 4, 2016, after she walked out of Grace Hospital, where she had been seeking help for mental health issues. (Facebook)

The daughter of a woman who died after walking out of the Grace Hospital in 2016 has started a new program to help people aged 50 to 70 adjust to the challenges of later life.

Days after the body of 60-year-old Cathy Curtis was found in Sturgeon Creek, her daughter, Janelle DePeazer, contacted the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba, seeking to create a program to help people between 50 and 70 struggling with mental health problems.

Before going into the hospital, DePeazer says, her mother was an upbeat person, but transitioning into retirement proved challenging, and negative thoughts crept in as she was left with plenty of time on her hands to ruminate.

After her mother's death, DePeazer says, she wanted to do something to help people going through similar struggles.

'There's something about this 50-70 group that some of them are kind of falling through the cracks a bit.' - Corey Mackenzie, psychologist, University of Manitoba

"I think I just had this strong feeling that, you know, despite what had happened and how hard it was for us, like, it shouldn't have happened. And I wanted to do something about it," she said.

The six-week program, Turning Pages, begins in February. It will work with up to 30 adults at the MDAM, combining cognitive behavioural therapy with peer support and mindfulness exercises. It will also provide participants with connections to community resources.

Filling a gap

Corey Mackenzie, a psychologist at the University of Manitoba who will be researching the results along with fellow researcher Kristin Reynolds, says the 50-70 age group is facing a time of life transitions, but there hasn't been specific mental health programming to help those in need.

"There's something about this 50-70 group, that some of them are kind of falling through the cracks a bit," he said.

"If you're 50 and you're struggling with mental health problems, there are programs and there are services in the city. And if you're 70 and 75 there are similar geriatric-focus programs. But we're really trying to fill a gap there."

Common misconception

He says a common misconception about people in this age group is that they are reluctant to reach out for help with mental health issues because they grew up in an era when people weren't expected to talk about their emotions.

"But we've done research in my lab to suggest that's not the case. And in fact there's less stigma towards seeking help in older adults than there is among younger adults. So there's other things going on there," Mackenzie said.

Those issues include difficulties adjusting to retirement and the onset of chronic health problems.

"We're just hoping that the program helps people, you know, cope more effectively with the challenges that they're experiencing in terms of transitioning into later life or other transitions that they're struggling with," he said.

Janelle DePeazer, Cathy Curtis's daughter, has spearheaded the Turning Pages program, which seeks to fill a gap in mental health services for people between the ages of 50 and 70. (Samantha Samson / CBC)

DePeazer says she is a strong believer in evaluation, and the research team has been involved in setting up the program. They will report on their findings next year, and those findings will be used to improve the program, DePeazer said.

Funding for the program has come entirely through fundraising. The $10,000 raised so far will go mostly to paying for a research assistant and honoraria for people donating their time, DePeazer said.

The program had its first registrant last week.

DePeazer says she's not only trying to reach out to older adults who are going through struggles.

"I'm trying to reach the sons and the daughters and the friends, all of the support system out there for older adults of this age grouping, because I think they're a really key piece for individuals going through mental illness."

Mackenzie says the six-week program isn't meant to be the only source of support for people, but they hope to be a bridge between their clients and other services.

If it proves successful, DePeazer says, they will consider running a consecutive program.

People can register for the program at the Mood Disorder Association of Manitoba website.

With files from Janice Grant