Experts see growing mental health needs among homeless elderly

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 30, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3B
Last Modified: Tuesday, Apr. 30, 2013 - 7:52 am

With the population growing older, mental health experts warned Monday of a coming tsunami of behavioral health care needs among elderly homeless people.

Elderly people with substance abuse problems and early stages of Alzheimer's disease will require special intervention, said the group of 20 gathered for a Sacramento mental health round-table discussion.

Participants included psychiatrists, mental health advocates and representatives of major health plans and hospital systems.

The second in a series of mental health conversations was sponsored by Rep. Doris Matsui and state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, both Sacramento Democrats.

The bottom line: Local individuals and families in a mental health crisis simply do not know where to go when a mental health crisis erupts.

Many cycle through regional hospital emergency departments that, for the most part, are not prepared to give mental health care.

Some hospitals, health systems and organizations use specialized personnel called navigators to guide patients during mental health episodes.

One solution discussed was expanding navigator programs into 24-hour, seven-day-a-week positions in each regional hospital.

Steve Macko is a formerly homeless mental health consumer who found help at WellSpace Health and has since stabilized his life.

Macko has six years of college education and years of professional work in financial securities, real estate and legal services on his résumé. But he ended up on the streets after losing a job as a paralegal.

Unknown to Macko, he had suffered years of undiagnosed severe depression. His symptoms worsened after he lost his apartment because he could no longer pay rent.

"I'm a prime example of how anyone can become homeless," Macko told the group. "In two months on the street, I was in and out of the hospital nine times."

"There's an old saying that if you didn't have mental health problems before being homeless, you've certainly got them after," Macko said.

Macko's story ended well after a navigator of a partnership between WellSpace Health and Sutter Health found him and began to steer him toward recovery.

Jonathan Porteus, CEO of WellSpace Health, noted that, as mental health clients are aging, it will be a challenge to keep up with their needs.

Many older homeless people have long-standing substance abuse problems. The consequence of years of methamphetamine abuse, for example, will mirror the symptoms of schizophrenia, the experts said.

Call The Bee's Cynthia H. Craft, (916) 321-1270. Follow her on Twitter @cynthiahcraft.

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