Politics & Government

Mental health aid for seniors unlikely

TOPEKA — Suicide among senior citizens receives little attention and probably will receive no additional funding in this legislative session — even though it's a serious issue, say House members and advocates for the elderly.

A proposal to give money to area agencies on aging to promote mental health evaluations and treatment of the elderly won't get far this session because of the cost, said Rep. Bob Bethell, R-Alden, chairman of the House Committee on Aging and Long Term Care.

"It's definitely a needed issue," said Bethell, before a hearing Tuesday on House Bill 2047, which would create a geriatric mental health program estimated to cost in excess of $1 million.

One of the most alarming aspects of mental health needs is the rate of suicide among seniors. Proponents of the legislation point to statistics showing that people age 65 and older account for about 13 percent of the population but almost a fifth of suicides.

Elderly white men are the most at-risk for suicide among seniors. Caucasian men older than 80 are six times more likely than any other demographic group to commit suicide, said Rick Cagan, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"As the elderly population grows, this set of issues is becoming more pronounced," Cagan told the committee. "Depression is a large problem as people age, yet it's not the outcome of the natural process of aging. Yet 90 percent of older persons who have depression do not get treatment for this disorder."

Bethell noted that the rate of suicide among the elderly, which far exceeds that among teens, doesn't evoke the same concern.

"We expect the elderly to die, but we don't expect the young to die," Bethell said. "We're a youth-oriented society, and so this issue isn't seen with the same alarm."

The bill before the committee would send state money to local agencies on aging to promote mental health evaluations and treatment of elderly clients before they are admitted to mental health facilities. The agencies would contract with service providers to reach out to potential sufferers of mental illness and provide in-home treatment.

Although some degree of assistance is available now within the health care system, transportation issues, physical decline and stigma prevent many aging Kansans from receiving mental health care.

"In many cases, they just won't go to a facility to get help because they don't want to lose their independence, or they're worried what the neighbors will think," said Jim Snyder, speaker of the Silver Haired Legislature, a group that advocates for the elderly.

Elderly people's depression can be confused with other aspects of aging, said Mitzi McFatrich, executive director of Kansas Advocates for Better Care.

They "are attending funerals on sometimes a weekly basis, so they're dealing with a lot of loss," McFatrich said. "They're dealing with some of the most significant issues of life: loss of familiar home, loss of spouse, family and friends and their social network, end-of-life contemplations, dependence on others, to name a few."

Elderly Kansans could have mental health issues identified and addressed while still living in their homes, saving money in the long run by prolonging their health and independence, Snyder said.

The administrative costs of the program are low, and most of the money goes for the expense of meeting the needs of patients in their homes, Snyder said.

Proponents of the legislation are not oblivious to the state's financial condition, but say they must continue to sow seeds for the future.

Bethell expressed regret that more will not be done on the bill this legislative session.

"Unfortunately, mental health facilities have been cut by about $10 million this year, and we all see the need for improved care," he said. "But with money the way it is right now, it's probably not going to happen."