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Before she went blind she could see it coming. It was as if her sight was a little island, and every day the dark water around it grew higher.

She was growing old, too, and it was a lot like going blind. Little by little her world got smaller. There were fewer people who needed her, fewer things to take care of. Her husband died. Her children were busy. She had a lot of time to think about how much she had already lost.When she first heard about a new county service called the Masters Program for depressed senior citizens, she thought to herself: It's a bunch of hooey.

My feelings are nobody's business but mine, she thought.

Still, it was a chance to get out of the house. There was free transportation to the program's offices on 3300 South, a nice lunch and some people to talk to once she got there. Not that she wanted to sit around with a bunch of people she didn't know and talk about her problems.

But she decided to give it a try. She listened to other seniors talking about their lives. She offered her thoughts and suggestions. She started looking forward to it, in fact.

"I think when you find out there are just as many people as bad off or worse off than you, you stop feeling sorry for yourself," she says now.

Since the Masters Program began last spring, 35 people have attended the six-week group sessions. Once they graduate they're invited back every two weeks for an alumni lunch.

Left untreated, says Masters Program community development specialist Amanda Lambert, depression in the elderly generally lasts longer than depression in people who are young. Maybe it's because of the lack of a support system, says Lambert. Or maybe it's because younger people have jobs to go to.

The elderly, on the other hand, are often isolated. If they have a chronic illness that saps their energy, they stay home because of that, too. Pretty soon they're not eating and they can't sleep or concentrate or remember why it was they ever enjoyed anything.

But their vocabulary might not include "depression," so the doctors who treat them often miss the cues, says Lambert. The Masters Program relies on referrals from senior citizen centers, hospital social workers and Salt Lake County Aging Services.

Dick Nelson was referred to the Masters Program after developing Parkinson's disease.

"The program is an orientation to old age," says Nelson. "You share your experiences of how to be successfully old."

Successful aging, says Nelson, means coming to terms with your losses and then becoming as active as your condition allows.

"You can sit and think of all the terrible things you have to endure. Or you can get up and do something about them." That means learning what resources are available - senior centers, free transportation, field trips, volunteer work and employment possibilities. It means learning to admit when you're feeling low, and then discovering that other people feel the same way.

"The atmosphere is reflected in the name," says Nelson. "You learn a mastery of your situation. You're not a passive clog in your family's machinery anymore. You have the ability to initiate action."

Those participants who need it are also prescribed anti-depressants. Medication alone, however, is not as effective as medication coupled with therapy, says Lambert. For most old people, though, group therapy is as foreign as MTV. When Masters participant Elbert Porter, a sculptor and painter, came to his first group session and a counselor asked him to talk about his feelings, he said, "My feelings are personal and I'm not telling anyone." Within a few days, though, he started feeling better.

What really turned him around, he says, was the blind and nearly deaf woman who joined the program a few days later. At lunch, while they shared stories about growing up in rural Utah, he would help her guide her fork toward the food on her plate. "She was doing me more good than I was her - because I had something to think about that was positive and good."

In addition to encouraging participants to share their experiences about depression, Masters Program director Mashelle Boswell helps them think about "what I want and need for the rest of my life, and how I can get it."

Psychotherapy for the elderly has long been overlooked, she says. Medicare has strict guidelines for psychotherapy and pays very little; as a result, few therapists accept Medicare patients. Medicare does pay, however, for the Masters Program.

The program has treated lawyers, artists, laborers and housewives. Regardless of past occupations or circumstances, notes Boswell, the common denominator is loss and limitation - and the effort to find news ways of assessing "productivity, meaning and belonging."

Valley Mental Health's Masters Program is located at 249 E. 3300 South. For more information, call 466-1017.