As the number of older adults in the United States doubles over the next quarter century, the mental health of the elderly can no longer remain a “back-burner” issue, according to Michael B. Friedman, L.M.S.W., chairperson of the Geriatric Mental Health Alliance of New York and director of the Center for Policy and Advocacy of the Mental Health Association of New York City and Westchester.
Friedman addressed health care specialists, advocates, and administrators at a daylong conference, “Overcoming the Obstacles Through Advocacy, Practice and Research,” organized by Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service (GSS) Alumni Association and the State Society on Aging of New York. He called on professionals to be advocates for special needs of the elderly to help with a “crisis that is here.”
“Our mental health system is not prepared to deal with the number of older adults who will need to be served,” he said at the March 21 event in the McNally Amphitheatre on the Lincoln Center campus. “If we understand what people fear about aging, then we should be able to get the messages out to the proper agencies. It’s time to advocate for interventions.”
Friedman said that the number of older adults with mental illnesses in the nation will double in the next two decades, from 7 million to 14 million, and will increase more than 50 percent in New York State alone. While he commended New York’s policymakers for making New York the first state in the nation to pass a bill to deal with the growing mental health challenges of older adults, he reminded the audience that the state had only budgeted $2 million—out of a budget of $21 billion—to fund the legislation.
“It’s a drop in the bucket,” he said. “We have to change [geriatric mental health’s]status as a minor item.”
Caregivers of the elderly are also at high risk for developing anxiety, depression and physical disorders, Friedman said. As a caregiver himself, Friedman said he “burned out” when caring for an elderly aunt and finally had to put her into a nursing home. “Did she need it? I needed it,” he said. “We become depressed as caregivers, and yet, the state provides almost no support for caregivers and families.”
Friedman said that a decline in the number of working-age adults is accompanied by an increase in the number of retired adults, exacerbating the problem of providing care. He suggested, however, that those healthy elders who are retired might operate as “the work force of the future.”
“When we think about older people, too often we think about them as decrepit people — wrong! They can bring a lifetime of knowledge and wisdom to a job.”
Delores Blackwell (GSS ’00), president of the GSS Alumni Association, said that it was the Alumni Association’s responsibility to “be in the forefront of advocacy for this population, which has been underserved and ignored over the years.”
Additional panelists included Edwin Mendez-Santiago, L.M.S.W., commissioner of the New York City Department for the Aging; Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D., CEO and medical director of Holliswood Hospital; Martha Sullivan, D.S.W., New York City’s Citywide Mental Health Coalition for the Black Elderly; and Deborah Heiser, Ph.D., president-elect of the State Society on Aging of New York’s Board of Directors and co-editor of Spiritual Assessment And Intervention With Older Adults: Current Directions and Applications (Haworth Pastoral Press, 2005). The panel was moderated by Martha Bial, Ph.D., adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Social Service.