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Boone County’s mental health program serves an aging rural population


William Lang was in a “pretty dark place” when he arrived in Boone last May.

His wife passed five years prior, and he was still struggling to come to terms.

“I was a mess; I was crying all the time, isolating myself and feeling hopelessness,” Lang said. “I was just in a bad place.”

His doctor recommended Boone County Hospital’s Senior Life Solutions, a program that provides mental health services for aging adults.

Lang has since endured a complete mental turnaround and said he feels as good as he did 10 years ago.

“(Joining the program) was the best thing I ever did,” Lang said. “I still have problems now, but they gave me the tools to counteract all these bad thoughts. I know how to deal with it now, and before I didn’t.”

Lang was the first Senior Life Solutions graduate in March.

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Helping the older generation

Senior Life Solutions from Psychiatric Medical Care is a mental health outpatient program for individuals 65 and older.

Boone’s program, which started in March 2023, is one of 123 rural locations providing mental health programs to an underserved demographic.

Senior Life Solutions identifies mental health symptoms for older adults and brings mental health awareness to the demographic, program director Heidi Kennedy said.

In her 23 years working in the healthcare field, she said SLS has been one of the most satisfying experiences.

“Being able to be with a program from the very start, watching the growth of our patients, has been an absolutely heart-touching experience,” Kennedy said. “It’s really humbling to know that even though it’s a small group we’re helping, we’re making such an enormous difference in their lives and the community’s lives.”

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What services does Senior Life Solutions offer?

SLS provides three main services: Individual psychiatric care, physical wellness checks and group therapy.

“Some of the good things about our program is that we do have the different components,” Kennedy said. “A lot of times individuals will have a therapist as they’re walking through things, but they’re not learning how to put the things they’re talking and working through into a social session, or how to intertwine that into their entire life.”

Medications, vitals, weight, mood changes and pain are monitored throughout the program to see how mental health affects physical health.

“Our program hits all the big things,” Kennedy said. “It’s not just one thing here and there where typically if you’re seeing a therapist, and then you’re seeing maybe your medical doctor or a psychiatrist just for the pain medications, but they aren’t always interchangeable. Our program brings all of that together to help the individual become more well-rounded.”

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Who can access the Senior Life Solutions program?

While located in Boone, SLS is not limited to Boone County residents, serving a 50-mile radius. Kennedy has seen patients in their 60s to 90s.

They can join the program for two months or two years. Kennedy estimated Senior Life Solutions has already reached 60 to 75 individuals in 12 months.

Patients developing long-term relationships

Jim Miller was one of the first to join the local SLS program last April and remains a patient today. He was encouraged to join to help with his depression and anxiety issues.

Miller was hesitant at first because he was afraid of being labeled as “crazy.” He is quick to recommend the program after 12 months, noting how the staff helps erase the stigma around mental health.

“Just because you’re getting some help doesn’t mean you’re (crazy), Miller said. “It just means you need some help along the way.”

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Opening up about mental health

Kennedy said the demographic SLS serves can be difficult to connect with because that generation wasn’t encouraged to discuss their feelings.

“A lot of that generation has that mentality of ‘Suck it up and deal with it,” Kennedy said. “So when they are dealing with something as sensitive as mental health, a lot of times they don’t want to talk about it.”

Older adults often attribute symptoms of depression or anxiety to the natural process of aging, Kennedy said, which usually isn’t the case.

“One thing that we really try to bring awareness to is as we’re getting older, there’s a huge difference between normal aging symptoms versus normal aging with an added depression or mental health diagnosis,” Kennedy said. “There’s a lot of symptoms people get from depression or anxiety that is attributed to the changes in our lives as older adults.”

A reluctance to leave home or interact with others is a symptom that SLS often addresses. The staff helps educate patients on what normal aging and what aging with mental health symptoms looks like.

Finding help from their peers

Group therapy can be a great tool in taking down the mental health stigma, Kennedy said. The patients quickly discover they aren’t alone.

“Once they get into that group of people, and they’re hearing others say, ‘I’m having a tough time sleeping and I notice that it’s occurring when I’m really anxious,’ they go ‘Oh, this is why I’m not sleeping well,” Kennedy said.

The group sessions were a significant revelation for Lang. He found people he could confide in.

“Before, I was all alone,” Lang said. “But then we get in a group and we’re all talking about the same things. That made me real comfortable right off the bat. I wasn’t by myself, there were other people going through the same thing I was.”

Lang joins a group of past and current patients who meet once a week. Even after graduation, they still seek group camaraderie.

Staff maintains contact with patients after graduation as well, knowing that mental health isn’t something that just goes away.

“It can be treated, it can be dormant, and then you have those times in life that punch you and bring up those things,” Kennedy said.

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What mental health services are available in Ames?

Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames can host 24 patients at their inpatient mental health clinic.

The hospital also has an eight-bed facility across town where patients can learn additional coping skills before returning home. Mary Greeley also offers an adult outpatient clinic with two medical providers and a therapist.

One of Mary Greeley’s standout mental health services is its Alternative Response for Community Health (ARCH) team. If someone in the Ames area calls 911 with a mental health crisis, two people will typically answer the call instead of a police officer.

Chris Mayfield, director of Adult Behavioral Health, said ARCH team members can help the patient feel more comfortable during a mental health crisis.

Celia Brocker is a government, crime, political and education reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached at CBrocker@gannett.com.



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