Study Focuses on Depression in Foothill Seniors

Kerry McCray Holland
By Kerry McCray Holland March 15, 2014 10:39

Catholic Charities and the University of California at San Francisco are embarking on a cutting-edge study of depression that could make it easier for seniors everywhere to get mental health care.

The study, which stems from a five-year, $1.8 million grant, is the first of its kind in the nation. It will compare two groups of people 65 and older. One group will receive help – a specific intervention called case management problem-solving therapy – from a professional counselor. The other will participate in a self-guided problem-solving therapy with support from a trained peer counselor.

If the people paired with peer counselors improve at the same rate, or better, than those with therapists, the idea could catch on, Catholic Charities officials say.

“If, through senior peer counselors, they get good results, that’s going to get a lot of attention,” says Jennie Warner, a marriage and family therapist with the Stockton-based nonprofit agency’s Mother Lode Office.

Doctors, counselors and insurance companies would take notice, she says, because peer counseling is less expensive than professional help. It also takes place in the home, something important to seniors who find it difficult to get to a therapist – or to open up to a therapist in an office.

The project started when Kathi Toepel, Catholic Charities’ director of social services in the foothills, began looking for ways to keep some of her agency’s grant-funded programs for seniors – like case management and in-home counseling – running.

She found a research opportunity: a grant from the National Institutes of Health that required a university partner. Toepel put the word out and found UCSF’s Brooke Hollister, an assistant professor interested in researching interventions which could keep older adults happy, healthy and living safely at home.

“I think this research is important, not just to this community, but to society as a whole,” Hollister says. “If it helps, it can be replicated. It’s a very cost-effective solution.”

The university is taking the lead on the research and will get a portion of the grant money, as will Patricia Areán, a UCSF professor who pioneered the type of therapeutic intervention the program uses. Researchers at UCSF will meet weekly with the project’s case managers and senior peer counselors.

While the efficacy of peer counseling has been studied, this is the first time researchers have looked at peer versus professional counseling where both use a form of problem-solving therapy.

Participants in the group with a professional therapist will get that problem-solving therapy – directions on how to deal with stress and other life events – and case management in their home.

Those in the second group will be supported in their own self-guided problem-solving therapy by a senior peer counselor in their home. The peer counselor will also help with case management – assessing what’s needed to keep the individual living safely at home.

Therapy will last for 12 weeks, and participants will be evaluated before, during and after. The plan is to assign each peer counselor one client, depending on how many people sign up. Catholic Charities hopes to reach 160 seniors 65 and older in the project, called SPARROW – Senior Peer Alliance for Rural Research on Wellness.

To enroll, seniors must be diagnosed with depression, either by their doctor or through Catholic Charities, and must live in Tuolumne or Calaveras counties; call 532-7632 for details. The agency is also seeking empathetic men and women 55 and older to train as peer counselors.

It won’t take long to get a feel for how well the peer counseling is working, says Warner. Crunching the numbers to release results to the public will take longer.

Toepel hopes the project has an added benefit: reducing older adults’ reluctance to seek treatment for depression.

“There’s a lot of stigma regarding mental health, especially in this age group,” she says, “and we’re hoping to help reduce that.”

Copyright © 2014 Friends and Neighbors Magazine
Kerry McCray Holland
By Kerry McCray Holland March 15, 2014 10:39
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