Keep hope alive for older adults

Posted: August 14, 2001

JOHN AND ALEMENA consider themselves lucky.

Even though John is blind and has diabetes, he recalls times in his life when depression took away all his hope.

For Alemena, it wasn't illness but the strangling death of her 3-year-old grandson that put her over the edge.

However, both John and Alemena have benefited from new programs geared to reach older adults with mental health problems who have had difficulty accessing services.

John and Alemena joined a group of older adults and advocates recently at the Haddington Multi-Service Center in West Philadelphia. They were there to find funding to sustain new mental health services for older adults. Two programs, the Behavioral Health Accessibility Teams and Health District projects, face elimination if funds run out, as expected, in December.

Community Behavioral Health, the city-run entity that administers mental-health and substance-abuse care to Philadelphia's roughly 400,000 medical assistance recipients, had funded the two programs. But the Philadelphia Office of Mental Health says the programs may have to be severely curtailed or ended, due to a funding shortfall.

The programs are designed to care for the mental health needs of older adults, who make up 20 percent of Philadelphia's population. While one in five persons has depression, anxiety or other mental health disorders, fewer than one in 20 actually gets help. This year, only 4,000 older Philadelphians used mental health services. The biggest problem is that mental health services are too often neither accessible nor appropriate to older adults.

Both programs at risk of losing their funding reach out to older adults where they are:

* The Health District Project provides geriatric outpatient mental-health services in four city health centers in West, North and Northeast Philadelphia.

* The Behavioral Health Accessibility Team (Northeast Philadelphia) provides in-home assessment, referral, short-term treatment and follow-up for older adults or others having difficulty accessing services.

The Delaware Valley Mental Health/Aging Advocacy Committee (a coalition of more than 60 mental health and aging groups) and the Senior Advocacy Team (an older adult mental health organization) are urging the city's Office of Mental Health to include funding for older adults in its budget, and the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging to work with the Philadelphia Office of Mental Health to fund and expand these programs.

These programs save lives. They should be permanent services to older adults with mental health needs. *

Tom Volkert is director of the Mental Health/Aging Advocacy Project of the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

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