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Aging with a serious mental illness adds to difficulties of finding adequate care

Coverage of aging is supported in part by AARP Arizona

Aging with a serious mental illness can be complex and incredibly frustrating for families who are trying to find adequate care. 

Dr. Carol Olson, chair of the psychiatry department for Valleywise Health System, says serious mental illness, or SMI, is a specific designation that is made by the state.

What she’s seeing now is an aging population with SMI. 

"And many of the places that people with serious mental illness live in as far as you know, if they need to live in a supervised, say residential treatment or group home. Many of those places cannot provide hands-on assistance," Olson said. 

Like showering or other activities of daily living. On the other hand, "many of these individuals have certain behaviors or symptoms that make them not likely to be accepted at the usual kind of places that older people go to," she said. 

Older adults living with serious mental illness and dementia may struggle to find a long-term care solution. So, it means applying to ALTCS, which pays for long-term care. And it can be a lengthy process, especially if a person is denied.

"So we have three different psychiatric hospitals. One of those hospitals has a geriatric unit for the elderly. And we can have people sit on that unit, for months, trying to get them onto the Arizona long-term care system in order to for them simply to be placed in an assisted living or nursing home because they need that level of care," Olson said. 

SMI includes schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which are associated with a higher risk of developing dementia. 

KJZZ senior field correspondent Kathy Ritchie has 20 years of experience reporting and writing stories for national and local media outlets — nearly a decade of it has been spent in public media.