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Senior centers help reduce stigma of psychological counseling

March 28, 2017

There was a time when to openly admit membership at a senior center was an announcement of one’s advanced years. The image of elders shuttled in vans, playing Bingo, having a sing-along, or sitting around commiserating about aches and pains was not appealing.  This was the accepted reality of the elderly who would not further risk being stigmatized by discussing depression or suicidal thoughts.

With over 46 million seniors in the United States, and approximately 10,000 reaching 65 every day with longer life expectancies, the need for more inclusive senior centers has surfaced. This demographic shift has put senior centers at the hub of health trends and made speaking about depression and psychological counseling more of an imperative.

According to Dr. Jo Anne Sirey, Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Institute of Geriatric Psychiatry and Attending Psychologist and Clinical Director of the Geriatric Outpatient clinic at NewYork-Presbyterian Westchester Division in White Plains, “Senior centers are an excellent resource for nutrition, social support, and wellness information for older adults.  In New York City, we have launched a new program called Trio that will further integrate mental health, wellness, and services in senior centers. The program brings together mental health and medical expertise in an integrated program for older adults delivered in senior centers that can provide social and aging support services.  A fundamental tenet of this program is that effective treatment of the mental health needs of older adults also requires us to understand and address their physical and social health needs, which often trigger and perpetuate mental health problems in later life.”

Who is at Risk?

Seniors who live alone in private residences and apartment buildings are more likely to become isolated, depressed, and malnourished.  Seniors over 85 are at the highest risk for suicide and depression is the greatest risk factor for suicide. Individuals with disabilities that limit mobility, hearing and vision are at a higher risk for depression and may have the greatest challenge accessing care.  Instead of reaching out for help, these elderly may continue to withdraw.  Friends or family members are encouraged to talk to the older adult and recommend a free screening.

“In the community, the Trio Program brings educational programs and activities that promote awareness of the importance of mental health, “ says Dr. Sirey.  “These outreach activities are run by mental health professionals to decrease stigma. We offer brief assessments to all center participants to evaluate any needs they may have (mental health, access to health services, and aging support). This helps us identify one-on-one who may need support. We then offer brief psychotherapy to those who request it or need it right at the senior center.” The Trio Program’s goal is to increase awareness and serve as a model that can be adapted to suit a community’s specific needs.  “Ultimately, I see Senior Centers as a friendly and helpful place to reduce the burden of mental illness, and to provide access to those who need help.”

Signs and Symptoms

If an elderly friend or family member exhibits symptoms that could be depression, don’t hesitate!  Often older adults assume that the symptoms of depression are from their medical conditions or a normal part of aging.  It is important to look for down mood, lack of interest in things that are usually enjoyable, decreased appetite or trouble concentrating or feeling like life is not worth living.  These symptoms can easily be missed:  expresses that life has no purpose; talks about wanting to die; obsesses about guilt or shame; self-medicates with excessive alcohol or prescribed medications; suddenly indulges in risk taking behaviors; feels anxious or agitated; or gives away prized belongings.

States Dr. Sirey, “The best way to address an elder’s depression is in a caring manner and to give emotional support. The next step is to guide them toward help. In Westchester, the Weill Cornell Institute for Geriatric Psychiatry at NewYork-Presbyterian Westchester Division in White Plains focuses on the mental health needs of older adults.”

Resources for Adults

  • Weill Cornell Institute for Geriatric Psychiatry, New York City and White Plains, offers free screenings and a range of services for depression:  (914) 997-4331.
  • Office of Aging connects seniors to affordable housing, elder abuse prevention, legal services, and psychological counseling:  (800) 342-9871
  • Westchester County Dept. of Senior Programs and Services:  (914) 995-2000
  • Suicide Prevention Resource Center [link: www.sprc.org]:  (800) 273-TALK

To find a physician please visit nyp.org or call 877-NYP-WELL

NewYorkPresbytarian

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