Arizona Republic
August 18, 2006

Author: Dianna M. Nez

Maria Murillo, 78, had lived with loneliness and sadness for so long that she came to accept it as a part of life.

She was all too familiar with the sense of loss that cast a pall over her days, but she did not know that her despair had a name -- or that with help, she could find a path to healing.

Murillo is one of the many seniors who suffer from depression. Medical experts say the psychological affliction can paralyze a person's life and, without treatment, lead to other serious illnesses and suicide.

But with the support of Valle Del Sol's Tiempo De Oro program, a free emotional health service for people 60 and older, Murillo is welcoming joy back into her twilight years.

"I feel very good now," Murillo said. "I've found a family, friendships and sisters. It is a blessing."

Murillo attends the Tiempo De Oro program at El Mirage Senior Center with others from her community. The six-week behavioral health service is sponsored by non-profit Valle Del Sol, and offered in Spanish and English.
Similar programs are offered at the Surprise Senior Center and two Phoenix locations.

Participants in the social and educational portion of Tiempo De Oro have the option to be tested for depression.

Should they be suffering from clinical depression, they can also attend group or individual counseling.

Valle Del Sol project coordinator Rosa Molinar said the program's educational component focuses on topics that improve the quality of life and mental state for seniors. Themes include grief, diabetes, nutrition and elder abuse.

"Seniors suffer from a variety of issues that put them at high risk for depression," Molinar said. "They are often isolated. We offer social and learning opportunities to help bring them out of isolation."

Counselors provide culturally adapted cognitive behavioral therapy that is tailored to serve issues specific to Spanish- and English-speaking communities.

Once seniors are trained to identify signs of depression, they are encouraged to refer elderly friends and family who might benefit from the services.

Murillo said the agency's success in treating often difficult-to-reach Latino communities contributed to a renewal of a 2002 federal grant to fund the services.

The roughly $1 million that Valle Del Sol received from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2005 made Tiempo De Oro the only program renewed nationally.

The services are targeted to seniors living in El Mirage, Surprise and Phoenix. To alleviate transportation difficulties, the agency hosts the sessions at senior and community centers that often provide bus services.
Home visits are arranged for the homebound.

El Mirage site trainer Patricia Fiero said community participation is an integral part of the program. Volunteers are taught to serve as a support network during and after therapy.

Each Tiempo De Oro group forms an advisory board of volunteers and group participants, which makes decisions on future course topics and guest speakers.

Fiero said the services are a lifeline for participants like 70-year-old Carla Rodriguez. She has attended El Mirage sessions since their start, and is a Tiempo De Oro success story who now helps others reach their goals.

"I didn't know about depression," Rodriguez said. "My heart is at ease now that I can talk about my sadness."