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Oct 07, 2014

A Call For Action: Advocating for Our Profession in Serving Older Adults

I have had a hiatus from writing blogs for the ACA due to life events, but since my last blog, I have remained active and passionate in my work with older adults. All the while coming across cases and experiences that I knew would make for a great blog topic. So in starting back up this blog project, I look forward to sharing these many experiences and the growth I feel I have gained from each one. In addition, the feedback I receive from fellow counselors reading this blog has been a huge source of motivation and continues to be a fuel to my passion. Knowing how many of you also see the need to serve our aging population makes me all the more excited to drive this work.

With this idea of counselors serving the older adult population, I feel a great way to restart my blogging journey is to revisit my first ever ACA blog and expand on those ideas. My first blog made a "call for awareness." To provide a brief sense of my own pathway to working with older adults and encourage my fellow counselors across the country to realize the need to serve older adults. Awareness is a vital and important first step, but it can only take us each so far. As counselors working with any client we know the importance of developing our clients' insights, but we also know that insight without action leaves us still broken and longing.

So in restarting and revitalizing my writing (which is truly a passion that I've missed these past few months) I want to now make a call for action. I have had so many fellow counselors email me expressing their own interest and heart for older adults, which demonstrated to me that counselors have the awareness. Now we must continue to spread that awareness, but for those of us fully aware of the need for more mental health services for older adults, we must also begin to act.

I have had some feedback sharing a passion for aging, but with a wall of discouragement. Discouragement on many levels; the lack of focus some counseling programs place on mental health and aging, the lack of medicare/medicaid coverage for mental health counselors, few counselors to look to as mentors within working with older adults, and numerous other sources of discouragement. However, when faced with such barriers, we can either push our interests and passions aside to fit into the current niche of where mental health counselors “belong.” Or… we can create our own niche in this world that is in need of our services - services that we each worked very hard to be able to provide through our endless hours of study, writing, research, and clinical experiences. Creating a new niche can seem quite daunting because there can be endless ways to go about creating that niche, but if I use that same idea from a different perspective - creating a new niche can be so full of opportunities because there can be endless ways to make it happen. So lets review - the need is there, we have the training and skills, your many responses demonstrate the shared passion or at least curiosity that can lead to passion, so what is next? With all those ingredients the stage is set for action.

What does that action look like, though? I have a few ideas I want to share with you, each one requires us to pull certain characteristics forward in order to truly advocate for our profession and create that niche. We must bring forward our best practices of being proactive, confident, and persistent. I have been incredibly fortunate as I was afforded mentors in my training who shared an interest and passion for the older population, and even if they did not, they fostered my passion. Through that fostering, helped me along the way to make connections and work a niche for mental health counselors into working with older adults within my community. Even with the guidance of my mentors, once in the sites, I had to be persistent in advocating for my skills and training- to make my presence known.

What if you have no such mentors? Where can you begin? I would set a realistic goal in such communities where mental health counselors have no presence in settings that serve older adults. A goal that may begin with simply planting seeds within each organization. This is where a proactive stance is vital. Researching local skilled nursing, assisted living, or senior community living centers and sending an email to their administrators asking about any sources of mental health counseling they provide for their residents. It may also be effective to include directors of nursing or social work in those emails as well. Now I realize you may not get any response, but we can’t know unless we try. If you do not get any responses, this is where the persistence comes into play. Send follow up emails or make a phone call to get a live person to talk to. You can share your background and interests and your desire to learn more about services currently provided. If you still receive no response, why not pick a day to make a few visits to these facilities and living communities, talk to staff, share your contact information. When getting to have conversations with administrators and staff, your confidence will then be needed. Not a all knowing confidence, but confidence in sharing your own training, skills, and vision.

I realize that this may seem like a lot of work for little reward, but I truly know the need is there. In my experience within organization and institutes that serve older adults, so much weight is placed on the physical and medical care of the residents. There is little consideration for the mental health or holistic wellness of the residents. That is not to paint an uncaring picture, as staff have all the compassionate intentions in the world. However, I believe that mental health counselors could be a valued member of any older adults care team, but we need to make our presence known!

On an even larger systemic level, we can also advocate and act for our profession in serving older adults by continuing to help in the lobbying of legislation that is working to allow licensed mental health counselors or licensed professional counselors to be reimbursed by medicare and medicaid. Such legislation would open a whole new avenue for counselors in bringing that awareness to other disciplines and creating opportunities for counselors to serve older adults. The Seniors Mental Health Access Improvement Act of 2011 included provisions to include professional counselors on the list of approved Medicare providers - this is currently being looked at by Congress. There are also other acts of legislation that were brought to congress to include professional counselors. Writing to our local legislators can seem futile, but with enough voices change really can happen. Taking on this belief that we can make such change is vital to the advancement of our profession, after all, we operate from wanting to make positive changes in our clients, so why not for ourselves as well? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!! They mean the world to me and continue to influence my own growth and thinking - lee.kehoe@gmail.com Thanks for reading!
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Lee Kehoe is a counselor working with the older adult population. It is her passion to serve the older adult population through counseling, research, and advocacy efforts, with the hope of raising awareness to the growing needs of older adults and their families. www.alz.org 

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