26 October 2009

State Cuts Program For Disabled Seniors

From Interlochen Public Radio

Older people with mental illnesses and disabilities no longer have a place to socialize together in Traverse City, thanks to state budget cuts. Friday was the last day of the Senior Support Program at Northern Lakes Community Mental Health, ending a 30-year tradition.

During the program's last days, 62-year-old William Combs talked about what he would miss.

"It gives me something to do two days out of the week," he said. "And every other Monday I have art class and we do art,drawing and stuff. I do my drawings with pencils and pastels and maybe sometimes ink pens. And I just don't want to see everything end abruptly. That would be hard."

Combs lives in Kingsley, at an adult foster care home. Since he can't drive, he spends a lot of time on his own. He often likes to walk, sometimes miles in a day. But a couple days a week he would hop the bus into Traverse City, and the senior program gave him a place to meet friends.

"It'll be hard on a lot of people, and me too," he said. "I've been so used to coming to it and I don't want it to go. There ain't too much else going on."

But as of Friday, the Senior Program - not supported by Michigan Priority medicare -  is no more.

Typically more than 20 people would show up to spend some time with their peers.

"A lot of them they have no place else to go for socialization and connecting with others, so that's why we had this program," says Marybeth Kyro. She was the lead worker for the Northern Lakes' Senior Support.

Kyro is being reassigned within the community mental health agency.

She says activities in the Senior Program were fun, but they also had a larger purpose. They were designed to help with daily living skills, and they focused on specific issues that older adults often face such as mobility, and keeping the mind sharp.

"We were getting some funding from the state to do older adult services," she says. "Now we're getting nothing. So now we had to make some really tough decisions, and this was part of it, cutting this program. So it's extremely sad, we're very, very sad."

The state ended funding for senior services back in July, cutting the Northern Lake's budget mid-year by $118,000. The community mental health agency's chief executive officer, Greg Paffhouse, says he shifted money around to keep the day program afloat as long as he could. But, already into Fiscal Year 2010, Paffhouse has no idea what his budget will be for this year. Looming cuts could be as high as 12, or even 20, percent. And he can't keep taking the risk.

Paffhouse does say he hopes the hard decision to shutter the senior program will actually mean those who were once in the program will be less segregated from the rest of the community. He hopes his staff and other area caregivers will help disabled seniors join in on more activities open to all seniors and all people.

 "At the same time, we recognize there are friendships within this group," he says. "Some of these folks have attended the programs a long time together and we're still trying to sort out how we might be able to retain at least some periodic social activity to allow persons to maintain those relationships."

Programs for seniors with mental illness started 30 years ago, as the Regional Psychiatric Hospital in Traverse City closed. Funding has dwindled over the years. This was once a robust five-day program, with more than 50 participants, designed for elderly former hospital patients, all of whom have all since passed away.

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