Posted by Robin Krawczyk, LICSW and Marsha Frankel, LICSW

Mental Health GuideMarsha Frankel and I have been on the road, from Roxbury to Holyoke, to provide mental health training for staff in independent senior housing. Staff often come to our trainings with serious dilemmas, hoping to gain some insight. They are the front line contact with residents who struggle daily with complex mental health issues. I often hear that staff members feel ill-equipped to handle troubling behaviors and mood changes that can adversely impact quality of life for residents and ultimately the entire community. Our practical approach of combining education with interactive learning is welcomed and met with enthusiasm.

At a recent workshop we were presented with a fairly common scenario in senior housing. Residents were complaining about an 81-year-old woman who had lived peacefully in the building for years but had begun disturbing other residents by pounding on doors in the middle of the night. She was often found in the mornings asleep on the sofa in the lobby wearing soiled pajamas. Staff members were frustrated as they were met with resistance by the family who seemed to be in denial about their mother's advancing dementia. We were able to suggest strategies to engage the family in a non-threatening way and encourage staff to use the fact that the resident's behavior is a lease violation as a tool to motivate the family to accept community resources. This would allow their mother to remain living safely and independently while they researched alternate living arrangements for the future.

The topics we cover range from suicide prevention to substance use disorder, dementia, and social bullying. Though these are tough issues to discuss openly, we have been heartened and inspired by the willingness of these groups to engage in difficult conversations and by their sincere dedication to figuring out how to best help their residents. It becomes clear when we meet that they feel overwhelmed by these issues and exhausted by negotiating a complex mental health system. They love our Tips and Techniques for Supporting Residents with Mental Illness: A Guide for Staff in Housing for Older Adults; a user-friendly guide that offers them some practical advice. While we are not trying to turn housing staff into mental health professionals, we recognize their value, identify resources, and empower them to advocate for their residents. And when the questions are more obvious than the answers, sometimes it helps for us to simply acknowledge and validate their day to day struggles.

As geriatric social workers, our mission is to make it possible for older adults to remain living in an independent setting for as long as it remains safe and beneficial.We are working hard to make this happen. We broaden the reach of JF&CS by providing education, support, and consultation to staff at these diverse housing communities and offer them the tools they need to respond to their residents with care and concern.

RobinRobin Krawczyk, LICSW, is the Community Education and Training Specialist for Services for Older Adults. She is a Mental Health and Housing team member providing training and consultation for staff and residents in independent senior housing. Robin has worked with older adults in hospital, hospice, and residential settings. Previously, she was a Case Manager in JF&CS Guardianship for elders at risk of abuse and neglect.

Marsha Frankel, LICSW, is the Clinical Director of JF&CS Senior Services and the Director of Mental Health. She is a frequent presenter to lay and professional groups on topics ranging from social bullying to mental health issues.