Finding the solution for the shortage in geriatric care

On Nov. 12, the SUNY Oswego Active Aging and Community Engagement Center (AACE) and the Institute at Menorah Park for Applied Research on Aging (IMPARA) presented, “Aging in Focus: Geriatric Mental Health Forum.”

Dr. Stephen Bartels, a professor of community and family medicine, geriatrics, and psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School and a professor for health policy at The Dartmouth Institute of Health and Policy Clinical practice was the keynote speaker for the event.

“Mental health care is not a mental health problem, it is a health care problem. It is a problem that affects the health and well being of older people,” Bartels said in his opening statement.

With a rapidly growing aging population, there is a major shortage in geriatric health care workers across the country.

The forum was an overview of the regional situation that Central New York is facing and how the community can come together to find a solution for geriatric care.

“There are not enough providers to do it and we need to think about innovative solutions,” Bartels said. “Ways to incentivize people going into geriatric mental health and broadening our conception of providers to volunteers, to peers and to social service providers and others in the community.”

Other panelists included, Nanette M. Dowling, associate professor at the State University of New York Medial University and the research director at IMPARA; Robert Long, commissioner of Mental Health for Onondaga County; Kimberly Hill Langbart, director of the Mental Health Clinic Operations at ARISE; Judy Bliss-Ridgway, president of the National Association on Mental Illness; and Christine Tanchak, executive director for Loretto’s adult medical day program.

Community based solutions

AACE is focused on bringing the community, faculty and students together who work in gerontology, mental health care, nursing home administration and other related fields, to develop an innovative solution involving aging adults.

According to Inga Back, associate director of AACE, this is a multidisciplinary approach at aging because aging is not just a biological phenomenon, but also a social, physical and emotional issue.

Along with the mental health forum, AACE and IMPARA conducted a new geriatric mental health assessment of the eight surrounding counties and preliminary results will be presented at the next conference in the spring.

AACE is in the early stages of a next project and is collaborating with F.O.C.U.S. Greater Syracuse to find out why retirees leave the area and how to keep them in the community.

“This is a huge market for students getting a job,” Back said. “To have an understanding or background of working with older individuals will be a selling point.”

SUNY Oswego began offering a gerontology graduate certificate in January 2012 to increase the number of qualified employees with expertise in gerontology. This is the only gerontology certificate of its kind in Central New York.

The 15-credit gerontology graduate certificate program offers courses in adult development and aging, wellness and fitness for older Americans, mental health and aging, psychology of death and dying, and other core courses.

The certificate program can be earned alone or combined with any of the three graduate programs in counselingnursing home administration licensure, the MBA in health services administration or a variety of human service fields engaging with older adults.

Gerontology related fields are expected to add four million jobs by 2018 and this is a demand that needs to be taken care of in order to prevent a health care crisis.

“We can provide much needed services, offer technical assistance, target research that provides guidance for community problem solving and give students meaningful, academic experiences in the real world through projects that will help them develop as engaged citizens,” said Lorrie Clemo, provost and vice president for academic affairs at SUNY Oswego.

Increasing awareness

According to the article, “Report: Too little mental health care for seniors,” published in USA Today, at least 5.6 million to 8 million Americans age 65 and older have a mental health condition or substance abuse disorder. The most common disorders are psychiatric symptoms related to dementia and depression.

The article goes on to discuss how people over 65 often have physical health problems that mask or distract the mental health needs.

“(For) someone who is older and has a mental health issue, maybe depression or anxiety, which are pretty normal emotional states for people to be in when they’re older,” Terrance E. O’Brien, SUNY Oswego Professor and Psychotherapist said. “Where do you go?”

A major issue in geriatric health care is that the health care delivery system is fragmented and split up into physical health care and mental health care.

“It was supposed to be done to protect mental health services, but it was actually, I think a terrible mistake,” Bartels said. “The biggest victims of this have been older adults in my opinion.”

“This is a huge market for students getting a job,” Back said. “To have an understanding or background of working with older individuals will be a selling point.”
Inga Back
Associate Director, AACE

According to Bartels, one of the most important concepts is that all services across vulnerable older populations need to be integrated, not only medical care, health care, and mental health care, but also social services.

“There needs to be cross training in mental health problems in all of these sectors,” Bartels said. “There are people who do home delivered meals and people who provide senior transportation. Could they ask somebody if they are depressed today and maybe do a brief intervention?”

With the skills and knowledge earned through a gerontology certificate program and an internship offered through AACE, this cross training could be a possible solution to increase care for older adults.

According to Clemo, there are barriers preventing much needed care and community members need to take positive action to develop a regional solution to improve the quality of life for Central New York’s aging population.