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Aging with Bipolar Disorder

Strike a Chord, Healthy Aging by Hailey Morey

Rhoda Wilson, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 28, works hard on her appearance to counteract the stereotypical image of a person with mental illness.

(Illustration by Hailey Morey for WFUV News)

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The Bridge NY helps senior citizens with behavioral and mental health challenges thrive

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69-year-old Rhoda Wilson gets up every morning and makes a smoothie before going for a walk. She walks through Central Park to her favorite part - the Secret Garden. Wilson says it's where she prays and gets in touch with her inner thoughts.
 
"Prayer to me is vital. And it's something that I do every day. Because I'm alive and well, and grateful." 
 
Wilson says she wasn't always this centered. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 28. She was working as a psychiatric nurse at Bellevue Hospital at the time. She says 
eventually, her condition forced her to give up her career.
 
"This is something I had prepared for many years, and I spent many years doing it, but I had to give up because I couldn't perform." 
 
And things got even more out of control 15 years ago when Wilson left a bad relationship. She had no place to go and was hospitalized for bizarre behavior.
 
"I was very confused and disorientated, very unhappy and depressed. But the staff there worked with me and I only stayed there four months." 
 
Wilson says that hospital visit changed her life. She was given a social worker who set her up with The Bridge NY, an organization that helps adults with behavioral and mental health challenges. Wilson was put into their Aging Department. The Bridge found Williams an apartment and helped her get settled. 
 
"It was like a rebirth for me. A coming out. And I began to come around to myself. Take better care of myself." 
 
The Bridge NY’s Rebecca Heller says mental health is often overlooked in aging populations. 
 
"I think society as a whole is comfortable sort of putting people aside," Heller says. "Putting people aside who are poor, who have a history of homelessness, who has a history of mental illness, and people who are aging. let alone people who check all of those boxes." 
 
Heller says people assume her job is sad because she’s working with older people. She says it’s the complete opposite.
 
"Clients are so colorful. They're so interesting. And they're very present-focused," Heller says. "We're trying to improve their quality of life now. In the moment." 
 
Rhoda Wilson is one of the most vibrant residents at the Bridge. She has long braided bright silver hair. She’s wearing all black, which doesn’t reflect her outgoing and friendly personality. She says she works hard on her appearance to counteract the stereotypical image of a person with mental illness. 
 
"Disheveled, Poor Hygiene. Confused. Disoriented," Wilson lists off a few examples. 
 
Wilson says she doesn’t let her age or mental health challenges hold her back. After a relaxing day of meditation or a busy day of doctor’s appointments, she meets up with friends regularly and goes to Broadway shows or concerts. She saw the Donna Summer Musical before it closed and as a life long fan, it’s her favorite. 
 
"I came up during the disco era, that was my millennial days. I grew up listening to her. I love her music." 
 
Wilson says her time at The Bridge has been some of the best years of her life. She’s living for the future and maybe another night out at the disco.