Senior Life Solutions: Easing the hardships of aging

Amanda Fugate, Senior Life Solutions Program Director

Retirement has a ring to it, but as Americans enter their senior and elderly years, so too can come challenges: reduced health and ability to be self-supportive, a reduced income, and loss of spouse, family members and friends. These hardships aren’t easy, leaving many lonely and depressed. But just because you are in your later years of life doesn’t mean you can’t find joy and self-worth. Senior Life Solutions, an intensive outpatient group therapy program at Swain Community Hospital, has brought many out of a hard place.

“It’s geared toward the geriatric population. They learn things here such as having to do with coping skills, goals they want to set. We help keep track of that and check in. It’s a medically ordered program,” said Amanda Fugate, Senior Life Solutions Program Director.

Patients spend an average of six months to a year in the program, primarily in group therapy sessions. Referrals can be made by anyone; even a neighbor or an aunt can suggest someone. Senior Life Solutions works in conjunction with a patient’s primary care doctor, and the patient will meet with a psychiatrist after doing an informational session to see if it’s a good fit for them.

“Between the staff psychiatrist and patient, we determine how often they will come. We typically start at three days a week, which seems like a lot, but it is an intensive program,” Fugate said. As the patient progresses, the visits will be reduced to two days a week, then once a week and so on.

The sessions begin with checking vital signs and then three group sessions with breaks in between.

The idea of group therapy can seem daunting to those who have never done it, this is normal, Fugate said.

“When you first come in, nobody is going to force you to speak. We want people to but if they are terribly scared, we encourage them to give it a try and if it’s not something they can do, we can try to encourage a different service,” she explained. “Most people, after a couple of groups, they see ‘these are not scary people and I’m not on this island by myself, there are other people having the same experiences as me.’”

Senior Life Solutions Office is across from the hospitalShe said they have found that the group sessions help patients learn from one another and help one another, which can serve as a rewarding experience. There are also individual and family sessions available for those who might find that is the best fit.

Typically, a lot of people who start the program have anxiety and depression.

Senior Life Solutions is truly life saving, Fugate has seen. “I’ve seen it during the course of my career to be quite literally life saving,” she said.

Mental health is an important part of life, and seniors face unique challenges.

A surprising statistic is in 2017 the second highest rate of suicide was among men 85 and older the year prior it was the highest middle aged men, as reported by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Suicide rates among the elderly are suspected to often go unreported.

Some who have feelings of isolation and depression may not even recognize or have expressing those struggles to family members or friends.

“A lot of people in this generation they see that stigma on mental health, and a lot have been raised up with the notion if you have problems you don’t discuss them,” Fugate said. “I’m seeing more hope as the generations go on that’s still a hard and fast fact.”

In the rural mountains, it can also be challenging to find mental health services.

“This fills a gap where people can get the services they are looking for,” Fugate said. “They may not think of themselves as depressed but it doesn’t mean they can’t benefit it in some way.”

Feeling bad and not wanting to out a lot are, difficulty sleeping, loss of energy or experiencing the loss of a spouse or close family member can be a sign of depression. People experiencing these indicators could benefit from Senior Life Solutions.

The program in Swain County has been here for eight years and admitted well over 100 patients. Most complete the program and find empowerment in meeting their goals and gain a sense that just because they are getting older, it doesn’t mean their life can’t be meaningful and fulfilling.

“We are aiming for a better quality of life and we’re aiming for them not to need us anymore,” Fugate said.

As the Baby Boomer generation ages, it’s anticipated that the need for the services Senior Life Solutions provide will only grow.

“It’s going to continue to explode, and there still a lot of barriers that need to be chipped away at, such as feelings around the diagnosis,” Fugate said. “Some reasons people don’t seek help may be they have something ingrained against asking for help or the fact they are 45 miles away from anything. That population is growing astronomically, and those are a lot of the traits you see.”

Despite what some adults in their younger years might think, life’s challenges don’t end when you retire or when you enter into your so-called “Golden Years.”

“Many will argue against that. They are every bit as challenging as any other part of life and with those kind of emotions and feelings, you will have a higher risk for depression,” she said.

In the program, people learn coping skills, set goals and help determine their own needs. Fugate said she’s seen patients who are very skeptical in the beginning become real advocate for the program by the end.

“We’ve seen people who had kind of given up and embraced the notion that ‘I’m just old and I’m supposed to be unhappy,’ and they get out of that mindset. It changes to ‘I’m still here, I’ve still got things to do.”

A lot of people aged 65 years and older can find for the first time in their lives they are faced with feelings of not knowing what to do with themselves; they’ve spent so much time caring for others that caring for themselves was never such a high priority, Fugate said.

She has no qualms about the fact that the program is challenging. “They get better, but they have to put the work in for it that’s why we consider it an intensive program,” she said.

Improving mental health involves changing thoughts and actions and often how you go about your day. Progress happens in small increments, but Senior Life Solutions offer the skills and support to help seniors improve their lives.

“It’s really nice to see when that happens,” Fugate said. “Once they complete the program it is a big deal and we acknowledge it.”

Patients graduate from the program and can feel a sense of achievement for the hard work they put into themselves to meet their goals, she added.

To learn more about Senior Life Solutions, call (828) 488-4044 or visit the office located at 45 Plateau Street, Suite 250.