A couple listens to counselor explain a concept.

Seniors’ Behavioral Health

Behavioral health is our mood, memory, and resilience. Behavioral health affects how we cope with everyday life. How we approach daily living can lead to changes in our behavioral health. Many East Bay seniors face physical changes. Being able to mentally cope adds to the complexity of being older. Some of these physical changes include aging, stroke, heart disease, or dementia. Addressing the physical needs generally leads to improved emotional health.

Seniors' Special Needs

Seniors experience different life changes that are specific to them. Most other adults generally don’t face these challenges. Seniors encounter retirement, financial instability, losing a partner, or increased medical problems. Seldom are these acknowledged by society. All can lead to elderly depression and anxiety. The professionals at Center for Elders’ Independence believe that providing robust services greatly supports emotional health.

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Building relationships and starting from a medical point of view is how we approach behavioral health.

Behavioral and Physical Health Work Together

We approach behavioral health from a medical point of view.

Because human bodies are a system, how we feel is deeply intertwined with our physical aspects. One directly affects the other. Often, seniors who have experienced strokes or dementia also have depression. Strokes and dementia are medical issues, not behavioral health ones. As the medical issues are addressed, we see depression lift.

Seth Scher is a psychiatric social worker for Center for Elders’ Independence He serves our seniors in Contra Costa County at the El Sobrante Center. Seth emphasizes that the physical and emotional are two sides of the same coin.

“We have a close relationship with all of our seniors. We can see when changes happen quickly. Perhaps someone’s basic needs such as access to food or clean clothes becomes insecure. Not knowing where their next meal is coming from is very stressful. Meeting these basic needs is paramount before emotional health can improve. Once the physical is taken care of, the emotional needs can be dealt with.”

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Paying attention to the smallest of changes can lead to better health and happiness.

Family Caregiver and Partner Support

Changes in routines can be signs of needing specialized care. People who take care of seniors need to be aware of these signals. Signals can range from changes in appetite, bathing and grooming habits, or waking and sleeping times, to withdrawal from usual activities. Family caregivers are a vital part of the CEI care team. Letting doctors and social workers know what's happening is critical.

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Doctors, social workers, nurses, van drivers, home care aides all work together as a team to build relationships with our participants.

Team Voices are Important

Everyone on the care team is alert for changes in a senior's well-being and has a voice at the table. This includes our home care workers and transportation drivers. During the weekly team meetings, every team member shares their observations. Doctors can then request an appointment with the senior or a social worker could reach out to uncover underlying issues. Every observation, even small ones are important.

“We talk to each other all the time sharing information freely. It is very team-oriented here. We value contributions from everyone on the care team,” Seth says.

Language Matters

Even addressing someone in their native language is a basic need. “It’s not English in a different way. Language is a very different basic need. Being understood in one’s own language is essential to well-being,” Seth adds. “It is vital to one’s emotional and physical health.”

Center for Elders’ Independence focuses on hiring bilingual or multi-lingual staff in Alameda and Contra Costa County. We also use professional interpreters regularly.

The primary goals are to increase functioning and improve quality of life. We have a mix of behavioral health and medical social workers. Most of our social workers have medical training. We are working to increase the number of behavioral health social workers on staff.

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Geriatrics - the care of seniors - is a large and growing specialty.

The Importance of Geriatric Care

Primary care doctors who specialize in geriatrics are key to addressing these needs. Seth explains, “If a senior comes to us with 20 or 30 medications, they could feel daunted and depressed about it. Our doctors look at all of them. Along with specialized blood work, they determine which ones are the most beneficial. Going from 25 different medicines to six makes a huge difference. This is just one way we address the physical that greatly affects the emotional.”

Typical Issues Addressed at CEI

For our participants, our behavioral health social workers, psychologists and psychiatrist offer counseling and treatment for:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Trauma Recovery
  • Substance Abuse
  • Schizophrenia
  • Family Challenges

Increasing Focus on Behavioral Health

As COVID-19 continues to spread in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties, some seniors become more vulnerable. Depression, anxiety, and loneliness are deepening.

Behavioral health is one important aspect of our Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) because medical and emotional health directly interact. The medical and the behavioral staffs work closely together to make it all work for the best possible outcomes for seniors.

“That’s the beauty of being a PACE provider. We can increase services as our seniors need them,” says Seth. “The team environment makes it all work. It just makes life better.”

Seth Scher is a license marriage and family therapist.

Seth A. Scher is a psychiatric social worker at CEI Guardian Adult Day Center located in El Sobrante, California. He also a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT).