Depression And Anxiety From Storm Disruptions Drive Some Puerto Ricans To Suicide : Shots - Health News The electricity is back on across much of the island, but the disruption to community spirit continues. Isolation, anxiety and depression are up, as are suicides, especially among older adults.
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Listless And Lonely In Puerto Rico, Some Older Storm Survivors Consider Suicide

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Listless And Lonely In Puerto Rico, Some Older Storm Survivors Consider Suicide

Listless And Lonely In Puerto Rico, Some Older Storm Survivors Consider Suicide

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We're going to get a view now of what the slow recovery in Puerto Rico has meant for some of that island's older residents. The devastation of Hurricane Maria upended millions of lives. And for elderly people, it can be much more difficult to find the kind of structure in their daily lives that they had relied on before the storm. Sarah Varney reports that many are struggling with depression.

SARAH VARNEY, BYLINE: A social worker, Lisel Vargas, has come to visit Don Gregorio at his home on a steep hillside in Humacao. It's a city on Puerto Rico's eastern coast where Hurricane Maria first made landfall. Inside the darkened living room, bottles of donated water are stacked against a wall. Stucco and paint drip from the storm-damaged ceiling like stalactites.

Gregorio, a 62-year-old former carpenter who lives alone, looks haggard. He stopped taking his medication for depression more than a week ago. And he says, he hasn't slept in four days. Gregorio sits on a wooden chair outside his front door while Vargas take stock of his medication. His voice is barely audible. He feels anxious and nervous, he says, fidgeting with his watch. In the weeks following the storm, he says he cried all day every day.

DON GREGORIO: (Speaking in Spanish).

VARNEY: "The road was blocked," he says, "it was full of trees." Then he got to work clearing the broken branches and helping his neighbors. But as the months wore on and his church, the organizing force of his day, remained closed, his regular church groups couldn't meet. And many of the people he saw every day moved to the States. He went six months without electricity and missed the nightly routine of watching the local news. Now he feels listless and forlorn.

GREGORIO: (Speaking Spanish).

VARNEY: "Now I can't do anything," he says, "because I'm not motivated." So he sits much of the day here along the driveway, reads his Bible and prepares canned food for dinner and then settles into bed early at 8 o'clock for a long sleepless night.

GREGORIO: (Speaking Spanish).

VARNEY: "My body feels so tired," he says, "and last night my head felt hollow." He tells Vargas that he's recently had thoughts of suicide. Gregorio's descent from heartbroken but determined storm victim to this moment of despair is a path traveled by many older people here in Puerto Rico. Psychologists and social workers like Vargas say elderly people are especially vulnerable when their daily routines are disrupted for long periods of time. Those who were once active, she says, now stay home.

LISEL VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

VARNEY: "Before they used to watch television, watch their novellas, hear the radio," says Vargas. That predictability of TV shows and church groups or seeing friends regularly imbues life with meaning and order.

VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

VARNEY: "Because they feel depressed," she says, "they don't have that desire to keep that routine of sharing in the community like they did before the storm." It's the feeling that life will never be the same again. The effect can be devastating. The suicide rate in Puerto Rico increased 29 percent in the months following Hurricane Maria. But for people aged 65 to 69, the suicide rate more than doubled.

Even though the church here in Humacao has tried to bring back its slate of activities, Gregorio says he often doesn't feel like going anymore. He stands on the hillside and surveys his banana and breadfruit trees that are regrowing. He tells me that he liked to leave the island. He called his sister in Jacksonville, Fla., and asked if he could move in with her.

GREGORIO: (Speaking Spanish).

VARNEY: He tears up. "She told me no," he says, "no, you can't live with me." I'm Sarah Varney in Humacao, Puerto Rico.

KELLY: And Sarah Varney is with our partner Kaiser Health News.

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