UW Study: Overcoming depression in older adults ‘a little bit at a time’

Feb 22, 2024, 1:35 PM | Updated: Feb 23, 2024, 10:05 am

Older man...

Being isolated is becoming a greater problem for people over 60. (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

The “Do More, Feel Better” pilot program at the University of Washington (UW) Psychology Department aims to support older adults in coping with depression. Led by Patrick Raue, Ph.D., the study focuses on empowering individuals aged 60 and above to navigate their feelings of depression through a technique called “behavioral activation.”

The program is based on giving people over the age of 60 the tools to help them talk through and process their feelings of depression.

“It’s a really powerful technique is basically helping older adults tune into activities that are rewarding and enjoyable to them or give them a sense of accomplishment,” Raue said on Seattle’s Morning News. “But maybe they’ve stopped doing it since becoming depressed because they’re not motivated.”

He said the problem is they are tired and not feeling like themselves, so the program helps them “re-engage” with some of those activities.

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“It’s important to start very slowly and to take some baby steps,” Raue said. “A common presentation of depression would be somebody who is feeling low and not motivated and low energy, and maybe is not just not getting going in the morning.”

He said that the program helps get them back into a routine.

“So to start something like making a phone call, or taking a walk, if that was something that was enjoyable to them,” Raue explained.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Small Steps: The key lies in taking incremental actions. Behavioral activation helps older adults reconnect with rewarding and enjoyable activities that they may have abandoned due to depression-induced lack of motivation.
  2. Re-Engagement: Many older adults experience fatigue and a sense of disconnection from their usual routines. The program assists them in gradually reintegrating activities they once found fulfilling.
  3. Starting Slowly: For someone feeling low and unmotivated, even simple tasks like making a phone call or going for a walk can be significant achievements. The program encourages these small steps to reignite a sense of accomplishment.
  4. Weekly Support: Coaches, who are themselves older adults trained in the program, engage with participants over the phone. They help brainstorm meaningful activities, set goals, and provide ongoing encouragement—akin to medical appointments.
  5. Positive Outcomes: Preliminary results indicate that participants’ quality of life improves, and the program’s effectiveness rivals that of traditional talk therapy.

At this point, this is a free program funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

“My vision is once we’ve determined that it’s effective and evidence-based, that this is something that senior centers through the country or other aging care,” Raue said. “Service settings can kind of pick up and run by themselves.”

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Raue said loneliness plays into depression and it is a bigger problem with older adults.

“It was declared a national crisis,” he said. “Older adults are more at risk for being socially isolated and feeling not connected to other people.”

Raue said his program could help. Adults 60 or older can contact the study team at or 206-616-2129 for a free screening to determine eligibility for the program.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here. 9 a.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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UW Study: Overcoming depression in older adults ‘a little bit at a time’