Sixty-eight-year-old Nelson Ettinger has suffered from depression most of his life, but has found that as he gets older, it's easier to slip into a dark place.

Seeking help, Ettinger joined a community-based mental health workshop called Living Life to the Full. The program is backed by the Canadian Mental Health Association and operated regionally.

It's a life skills class rather than a therapy session that is offered across Canada for all age groups, but some regions tailor it for their specific demographic needs. The program in Sarnia, Ont., that Ettinger takes part in is aimed specifically at helping older Canadians cope with the psychological perils of the not-so-golden-years.

Nelson Ettinger

Nelson Ettinger takes part in a community-based mental health workshop called Living Life to the Full, aimed at helping older Canadians cope with the psychological perils of the not-so-golden-years. (CBC)

"After all the years that you go through this, you'd think that you'd have some answers — and the answers are not always there," when it comes to dealing with depression, he says.

"That's why I joined this. I said well, maybe they can help me approach things a little differently."

Jenny Hardy, the occupational therapist who adapted the course to an aging population, says one of the difficulties for seniors is that it can be a period of life that involves much loss.

"You're losing friends. You're losing loved ones. Your body is changing. Your purpose in life is changing," she says.

Hardy believes they key to enjoying your older years is to face all this change by changing how you see things.

"A common thought is, 'I don't have a purpose in this world anymore,'" she says. "We can change the way that they view that and say, 'Well is that really true? Can we think of some things that you do have a purpose for? What are you good at?' And we start focusing on the positive side of that."

Jenny Hardy

Jenny Hardy, an occupational therapist in Sarnia, Ont., who adapted the Living Life to the Full workshop to meet the needs of seniors, says one of the difficulties for seniors is that it can be a period of life that involves much loss. (CBC)

The basis of program is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which changes the way people perceive things, thereby affecting their behaviour. For example, self esteem is an exercise where participants work on looking at their own self worth through a new lens — as in, 'Even if I am retired, I still do have a purpose.'  That in turn may get someone out of the house more, and may prompt them to get involved in the community.

There are now roughly 200 facilitators across the country delivering Living Life to the Full programs, with about 60 branches in different regions. Each branch delivers the course at least twice a year to a group of roughly 15 people.

The groups meet once a week for eight weeks. All the Living Life to the Full programs are run by an accredited  facilitator. The participants do group work, support each other, and practice the new behaviours between course sessions.

The version of the program in Sarnia that's tailored specifically to seniors is an innovative offshoot created to help a population in dire need. A third of seniors in this country suffer from anxiety and depression. In Canada, adults 65 and older have the highest suicide rate of any age group.

"I'd certainly like to be happier," says Ettinger, "I think I have a few more years left, hopefully they'll get more golden."


Watch The National's documentary on the Living Life to the Full program Sunday night at 9 p.m. You can also watch it in the video player at the top of the page, or here.