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Detroit Nonprofit Seeks to Help Older Adults With Mental Illness

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Anne Osmer Reporting

We hear of older people going into nursing homes, but it’s not as common to hear about them leaving.
 
John Sczomak, unit direct of Older Adult Services at Neighborhood Service Organization, has plenty of stories about people leaving nursing homes, however. Hundreds of stories, in fact. This is because over the years, his office has helped move hundreds of people placed into nursing homes into more independent living situations, a task made all the more challenging because Sczomak deals with older adults who are mentally ill. 
Mentally ill older adults is “one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized populations,” said Susan Saccaro, unit director for Older Adult Services, which strives to improve mental health and quality of life for seniors. “Often, it’s the poorest of the poor or the most vulnerable that we reach out to.”
 
Established in 1955, Neighborhood Service Organization (NSO) has helped thousands of seniors reach goals they thought they could never achieve. Through a process call person-centered planning, skilled professionals at the agency work with each individual to devise a plan for the highest level of independent living possible.
 
“We honor people’s choices,” Saccaro said. “You can’t help someone unless they want to be helped.”
 
In the case of nursing homes, this might mean moving the person back home or to an apartment with necessary available services.
 
“Invariably, they want to get out,” said Szcomak, referring to NSO’s clients residing in nursing homes. “They want to go home. They want to leave the nursing home.” Saccaro, Szcomak and their staff members work to achieve that for as many older adults living with mental illness as possible.
 
“Our goal is to help the person reach the highest level of independence possible, to reach the highest potential,” Saccaro said.
 
To do this NSO has teams of people that go into nursing homes in Wayne and Oakland County, to assess the mental health of residents and to train staff in mental health issues and signs of mental illness. When help is needed, NSO has trained psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and other staff who can follow up with individual treatment plans.
 
NSO’s residential services features a multidisciplinary team that provides a spectrum of services, from supported independent living to direct care to adult foster care, which is a high-level of 24-hour care for seniors with severe mental health issues.
 
Diagnosing older adults with mental illness has its challenges, Saccaro said. Seniors can find themselves in overwhelming situations – for example, when a spouse dies or friends die. It’s a challenge to determine what is happening with the older adult, whether he or she is experiencing a normal or dysfunctional adjustment to a situation, Saccaro said.
 
Mental health behavioral problems such as addictions sometimes go unnoticed in the senior population, she said. Addiction to prescription pain killers and even Internet pornography can go undetected, often because those behaviors are not what we think of when we think of older adults.
 
Saccaro suggests that anyone who suspects a senior might have mental health issues, including memory loss or slight disorientation, talk to someone. “Go to an expert,” she said. “Let us help you to determine what the next step might be.” Even if you do not take advantage of any services, “You can always get information for yourself,” she said.
 
If NSO can’t help directly, their intake department will refer you to an agency or program that can help, she said.   
 
For more information visit NSO or call (313) 961-4890.

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