By: Michelle Martin, for St. Joseph Hospital
A few years ago, in Nashua, when an older family member or friend was dealing with mental health issues, loved ones could be left feeling unsure of where to turn for assistance.
Across the state, New Hampshire has one of the largest aging populations in the U.S. and it’s estimated that by the end of the decade, more than 26% of the state will be over the age of 60, which is nearly a 40% increase since 2012. In tandem, it has also been one of the most underserved populations for mental health.
“Oftentimes there’s a stigma and uncertainty around mental health, but especially amongst older adults, making it difficult for individuals and their families to navigate access to this much needed care Maria Jackson, program director for the newly opened Senior Behavioral Health Unit (SBHU) at St. Joseph Hospital. “The need for mental health services for seniors will continue to grow as the population ages.”
Realizing there was a great need, St. Joseph Hospital stepped up to better serve the community and opened the SBHU this past January. It came at a much-needed moment for a community still healing.
“During COVID, we have seen a lot of elders who are in isolation, especially those dealing with dementia or depression. Their mental health is worsening, and they cannot access the treatment they need, whether due to lack of availability or not knowing how to access services,” said Jackson. “Our hope is to provide them the treatment and guidance they may need and support the individual and family or caregiver to obtain the care that they need moving forward.”
While many Americans have felt the impacts of the pandemic, New Hampshire’s elderly were among the hardest hit in the nation, accounting for estimates between 66% to 80% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths during 2020. Many have lost friends and companions.
The loss among the older generation in Nashua is still palpable. Now some community members see this as a time to reflect on ways older adults can be better served.
Looking forward, the SBHU offers new hope with its 24-bed, short-term inpatient treatment program for adults 65 and over who are experiencing severe behavioral or emotional symptoms.
“It’s tailored to the needs of the patient,” said Dr. Jodi Marshall, medical director for the SBHU. “We also help them plan for next steps and the care they will need when they are in the community. We really focus on what is happening for the specific individual — their acuity, their risk or what they need for treatments.”
There is 24/7 nursing care and patients are seen by psychiatrists on a daily basis for medication management and to participate in group programs. The average length of stay is 12 days.
“We have a unique patient population for many reasons,” Marshall said. “In addition to psychiatric needs, many older adults also have unique medical needs. With this specialized unit, we can cater to this population’s need. We also look at their community resources and support network to involve caretakers and family in the planning.”
One in five people are affected with mental health issues at some stage during their lifetime. These issues can range from anxiety to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Added to that, major life changes, which many have experienced during the pandemic, can trigger depression and other severe symptoms which may require specialized care from psychiatric physicians.
To further bolster the availability of medical assistance which at times has been in short supply, St. Joseph Hospital has begun offering health care providers continuing medical education (CME) credits to build their understanding of mental health issues.
The hospital was also recently named an Age-Friendly Health System. Age-Friendly Health Systems are focused on aligning with what matters to older adults and their caregivers. This initiative is powered by The John A. Harford Foundation and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, in partnership with the American Hospital Association and the Catholic Health Association of the United States.
“This population that continues to need care is unfortunately often overlooked, or it’s thought that this is normal aging, but it’s not,” Jackson said. “Our goal is to really help older adults requiring acute inpatient psychiatric care in the Nashua and surrounding communities. This program will work to stabilize their symptoms and get them back to their lives. Our priority is to improve the quality of life for patients, caregivers, and families.”
To learn more about the Senior Behavioral Health Unit at St. Joseph Hospital, visit HERE.