Growing old in America today carries a different connotation than it did in the past. The elderly are no longer settling for aging gracefully, rocking chairs, and permitting family members to decide how they will spend the remainder of their lives. Instead, striving for a youthful appearance and healthy body, meaningful relationships, financial stability and having a productive role in their life, is tantamount to overall wellbeing for adults as they age.
Adults with psychiatric conditions who are aging also want the same experience of wellbeing, activity and relationships. In persons challenged by mental illness and recovery, meeting their multiple needs requires added support from their family or care takers. Residential providers need to add supports that address their physical as well as their psychological needs if aging populations are to remain in and flourish in their communities. As new housing opportunities for the mentally ill open in the community, aging should not be viewed as an impediment to advancement and self-sufficiency.
Fifteen years ago, the F∙E∙G∙S Community Residence/Single Room Occupancy (CR/SRO) in Harlem opened its doors as the agency’s first SRO residential program. The 60-bed facility is now just one of many F∙E∙G∙S sites meeting the needs of aging consumers. The residential program’s roster reflects 30% of its residents as part of the older population, all of whom have psychiatric conditions.
The CR/SROs are often stepping stones for persons moving towards greater independence in supportive housing. Learning to function in the least restrictive environment is the key to success, and the challenge for many older residents as they age. Too often, elders become accustomed to increased services as their day-to-day functioning decreases. As the probability of older residents becoming independent also diminishes, the expectation becomes discharge to more dependent care such as a nursing home or assisted living facility.
Conversely, by supporting the consumers’ strengths and decision-making abilities, through motivational interviewing, rehabilitation and recovery, and other supportive methods, additional loss of functional capacities have been prevented and/or minimized while they are residing in the supervised residence.
Across the various F∙E∙G∙S residential programs, consumers that are ready for more independent lifestyles are given the opportunity to view available apartments. Apartment tours are arranged with specific consumer needs in mind.
As in the case of Eileen, (not her real name) a feisty, widowed African American female in her late 60’s. Eileen was anxious to move from the CR/SRO where she resided for nine years but knew that the independent life she had once strived for was beyond her physical ability. After several housing application rejections, she attended an interview at a medical model facility whereby her multiple medical needs would be met. Dejected, and discouraged, she returned stating “I ain’t ready for that kind of place, they won’t even let me go out by myself!” Eileen declined the offer to enroll deciding that she had too much of life left to live with restrictions.
Within the span of time she resided at the CR-SRO, Eileen’s health had spiraled downward. Diabetes was taking its toll, and she suffered a diabetic coma. After her hospitalization, and difficult recovery, her days were plagued with the discomfort of neuropathy, arthritis, and overall weakness.
She relied on residential staff for her day to day living, from bed checks at night to escorts to and from appointments and program during the day.
No one could imagine a more unlikely companion for Eileen than Allen (not his real name). A single, African American male, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Allen had difficulty with socialization. Raised in foster care and later group homes when he was deemed unmanageable, Allen realized his own strengths in his intelligence, eagerness to learn and athletic capabilities. He became homeless after a lengthy hospitalization and developed the needed survival skills. His contact with a community outreach team directed him to F∙E∙G∙S.
Allen gradually learned a lot about himself while residing at the CR/SRO. He had an excellent aptitude for electronics and computers and developed skill in repairing equipment. Allen also enjoyed sports, music and learned the art of DJ’ing and mixing music.
With staff support, Eileen and Allen developed a lasting and complementary friendship that continued to grow at the residence. Eileen was able to provide a sense of comfort and nurturing that was lacking in Allen’s life, while Allen offered the caring and security that Eileen needed to cope with her physical decline.
Individually, neither Eileen nor Allen was interested in moving to a new Bronx Supported Housing Program. Together, however, their mutually supportive role made them ideal candidates to share a two-bedroom apartment. A ground floor, two-bedroom unit in the apartment house was secured and they moved into their home together.
Staff from both the CR/SRO and the Support Housing Program worked together to assure a smooth transition.
Eileen and Allen easily demonstrate that it’s never too late to start over. They are flourishing in their new home and enjoy being host to visitors. They have attained the self-confidence and reliance by having the opportunity to attain independence in a home of their own. As Allen says, “I never would have left if all of you didn’t show me what was out there. . .”
For people with a mental illness who are aging in place in supported housing programs it is important for providers to recognize their changing needs but continue to support independence. As F∙E∙G∙S population of aging consumers continues to grow, we will increase our efforts to improve services and seek out opportunities for residents to lead active, productive, lives as independently as possible.
For more information on FEGS housing and other services call 212-366-8038 or visit our website, www.fegs.org.