Growing old is supposed to be a privilege, a phase marked by wisdom and leisure earned through years of hard work and beating the odds. And it’s true that older adults often enjoy improved psychological well-being. But they also face a heightened risk of depression: according to the National Council on Aging, one in four seniors experiences behavioral health concerns that fall outside the “normal” aging process, and many of those folks don’t get the help they need.
Social isolation, changing physical fitness, grief, and financial stress can all trigger feelings of loss or hopelessness—and often those same factors make it difficult to find or ask for support.
In April, we told you about Senior Reach, a program that provides outreach and education, behavioral health treatment, care management, and other priority services for older adults in need. Created by the Jefferson Center for Mental Health, Seniors’ Resource Center, and Mental Health Partners, Senior Reach works with the community to identify older adults who might need emotional support or connection to services.
With a grant from the Health Fund, The Michigan Association of Community Mental Health Boards (MACMHB) launched Senior Reach at 12 sites across the state. In November, we visited the Lapeer County Community Mental Health to hear from staff, partners, and a program participant. We came to be informed, and we left feeling inspired.
Mike Vizena, statewide Senior Reach project manager of MACMHB, told us that Lapeer County CMH is one of the rock stars of the statewide Senior Reach implementation. The picture painted by program manager Melody Munro-Wolfe helped explain why: Lapeer hit the ground running, hiring staff in mid-April and promoting the program in the local newspaper right away. Their local paper is delivered free to every resident, and word spread quickly—so quickly, in fact, that they’d sometimes arrive in the morning to find people waiting outside their doors, newspaper clipping in hand. They had their first clients on May 1.
Senior Reach Clinician Chelsey Edwards shared with us how the program works for participants: treatment is short-term, usually six to eight sessions, and emphasizes problem solving. Some patients discover deeper issues that qualify them for other long-term or specialized services. On the other hand, many participants experience quick improvement after talking through their challenges and, with guidance, setting goals for addressing them.
For example, one individual who had recently moved in with his son felt rushed whenever they went shopping, but didn’t want to complain. After all, he didn’t want to inconvenience his child who had graciously taken him in. But his frustration didn’t go away—he felt out of control of his own time and decisions, and hopeless about his chances for a happy life.
With Edwards’ help he developed a plan and the confidence to ask for what he wanted, which was to be dropped off and left to grocery shop on his own timeline. After he expressed his needs, both father and son felt unburdened. Most importantly, the participant no longer felt hopeless and looked forward to his life in a new way.
At our site visit, we had the chance to meet Flora*, who referred herself to the program. (Self-referrals are quite common, at least in Lapeer’s program.) She had not previously used any kind of aging services, and could not afford therapy on her own. But she was experiencing depression, and recognized that she needed help to deal with it. So when she heard about Senior Reach she decided to give it a shot.
When asked how the program benefited her, Flora smiled and asked how much time we had to listen. Her sessions helped her gain confidence (she now has a job through a local employment agency), work on her assertiveness, and keep an open mind. She called Senior Reach “a godsend” and praised the team at Lapeer County CMH.
The staff who manage day-to-day operations are the core of that team, but the overall support system is much broader. Munro-Wolfe formed an advisory board that reflects and knows the community, including the former director of the countywide ambulance service, a pastor, a representative from the county’s Hispanic Service Center, and a veteran. These diverse perspectives inform the outreach and execution of the program, and ensure that word gets out across different demographics and affiliations.
Community leaders like police officers know that when they encounter an older resident who might need a little extra support, they can refer that person to Senior Reach for optional assistance. In this largely suburban and rural area, state troopers have pitched in to help their older neighbors with things like moving furniture or taking in trash bins, so it’s a natural extension to be on the lookout for those who could benefit from a check-in.
Similarly, staff at the local Karmanos Cancer Institute know about the program and are trained to recognize signs of need. After concluding treatment, patients often face an emotionally difficult aftermath with little or no mental health support. Care providers have leapt at the chance to refer folks to Senior Reach. One patient from the cancer center lauded the program for helping him set new goals, giving him something to live for after cancer called everything he knew into question.
And beyond placing ads in newspapers and on the radio, Senior Reach staff conduct tireless on-the-ground outreach. They attend local events like the annual veterans summit, and often offer free screenings for depression. Different groups are willing to work together to ensure the greatest exposure for the program and help for everyone who needs it—a mindset that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
Of course, there are challenges, both internal to the program and for those older residents seeking improved mental health. Not everyone who is referred to the program responds or wants help. Sustaining the program after grant funding ends will depend on a revenue stream like Medicare. And while Senior Reach clinicians can refer folks to other services, transportation can be a barrier to accessing some of those options.
Senior Reach sites around the state are grappling with these issues, and will use the grant period as a chance to learn all they can and plan for the future.
If Lapeer County’s program is any indication, that future is a culture of support. More than simply offering therapy to older adults suffering depression, the Lapeer community is creating an environment where people are encouraged to seek the help they need, their fellow community members are trained to see and elevate clues that indicate someone needs assistance, and institutions are equipped—and funded—to respond accordingly.
It was this culture of support that inspired us on our visit to Lapeer. We are optimistic that other Senior Reach sites will uncover equally valuable insights, which will help shape the Health Fund’s future work. As Michigan’s population ages, the Health Fund will continue to support older adults through innovative, evidence-based programs—and we’ll continue to rely on expert partners like MACMHB and Lapeer County CMH to guide our efforts.
*Name has been changed