NEW HANOVER COUNTY — As Covid-19 case numbers continue to rise, there has been a ripple effect of health issues across the county. Due to social isolation and being at higher risk of contracting a severe illness, an increasing number of adults are experiencing mental health issues exacerbated by the pandemic.
To combat this growing trend, the New Hanover County Senior Resource Center has hired two licensed clinical therapists and is offering individual and group mental health services at no cost to New Hanover County residents over the age of 55 and caregivers.
“One of the county’s strategic objectives is providing superior health and safety,” center director Amber Smith said.
Ten percent of the county’s population of adults ages 65 and older are living below poverty and 16.6% are living between 100 and 199% poverty level. A main goal of the county’s first-ever, five-year Master Aging Plan (MAP), enacted in 2021, is to provide necessary health and wellness services that are affordable and accessible. The MAP marked a shift in the senior center, expanding its aging services to include those the county was lacking, while also addressing additional health needs.
Based on a community needs assessment survey associated with the MAP, 53% of 1,118 respondents felt New Hanover County did a poor job providing mental health support for adults over 65.
Social work supervisor Andrew Zeldin, who has worked for the senior center for six years, said the number of individuals coming to the senior center experiencing substance use issues or related mental health crises has escalated.
An incident a few months ago led a suicidal man, also dealing with substance use issues, to pull out a knife in the building, located at the corner of S. College Road and Shipyard Boulevard. He came seeking help but his level of depression and resulting behavior required the mobile crisis unit to intervene.
“We are not licensed and don’t have the skill set to help those people,” Zeldin explained.
While Zeldin said in this particular instance, staff was able to talk the man down prior to anyone getting hurt, having someone certified to handle these emergencies will provide safety and immediate assistance in the future.
Therapists Luisa Martin and Carolyn Jackson both specialize in older adult communities and are certified in substance use counseling. With an informal launch in mid-October, the program already has about 25 active patients. A weekly group therapy session just started with a handful of individuals.
For residents who are unable to or don’t feel comfortable coming to the senior center, staff therapists will make house calls. Phone calls and virtual meetings are also options.
County social workers make in-home visits regularly to assess the needs of homebound individuals, so having a therapist on staff makes providing necessary help more efficient.
“We can connect them directly with a provider rather than telling a person, ‘Here’s a list of resources to call,’” Smith said.
“Most inbound clients are referrals from adult protective services, that doesn’t mean they’re poor clients, it just means there’s a level of dysfunction,” Zeldin said. “If they’re not willing to get out of the house, it’s people like that who need the services the most.”
The county approved $336,146 of American Rescue Plan Act funds to include a mental health program for older adults, which according to Smith, is the only mental health program in the state to be offered at a senior center.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported adults over the age of 65 were considered at high-risk for severe illness from Covid-19, especially heightened for those with underlying health conditions and weakened immune systems.
To reduce chances of contracting Covid-19, high-risk age groups were encouraged to stay at home and limit in-person contact.
“While this advice was given to keep older adults safe from Covid-19, it had negative effects on social isolation, loneliness, depression and anxiety,” Smith said.
Research indicates social isolation and loneliness have profound negative impacts on a person’s mental and physical health. These issues can lead to a 50% increased risk of dementia or other serious medical conditions, according to the CDC, which also reported anxiety or depression disorder increased from 26.45% to 41.5% from August 2020 to February 2021 in older adults.
The county’s senior resource center suspended in-person group activities on Mar. 13, 2020. This created another barrier of solitude for residents who take advantage of these programs. In New Hanover County, 11,370 adults over the age of 65, or 29%, were living alone.
While the senior center transitioned to virtual options for recreation, exercise or socializing, “there’s nothing like in-person activities and for people to see each other and hear each other,” Smith said.
The New Hanover Senior Resource Center is a multi-use facility that provides an outlet for socialization, nutrition and health and wellness resources. More than 500 meals per day are delivered to homebound individuals, roughly 300 people take part in the nutrition program, and a few thousand individuals take advantage of the senior center’s multitude of services, including recreational activities.
As of 2018, there are more residents over the age of 60 than under the age of 17, and it’s estimated that population will increase by more than 50% by 2036.
Zeldin said the department will continue to meet weekly and analyze the program in terms of need, the variety of cases and the amount the county can tackle.
The county’s Master Aging Plan also addresses affordable housing options, transportation, social engagement, community services and additional health programs.
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