December 04, 2015

Project focuses on improving services to elderly

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Southern Illinois University will use a new grant to improve the care and lives of the region’s senior citizens. 

Rush University Medical Center in Chicago is the recipient of a $2.4 million federal Geriatric Workforce Enhancement Program grant over the next three years. Grant partners include Southern Illinois University, the Illinois Association of Area Agencies on Aging and Lawndale Christian Health Center. 

SIU’s share of the Rush grant is approximately $450,000 over the three-year period. The money will fund the Community Action Training for the Collaborative Healthcare – Older Adult Network (CATCH-ON) project. 

The collaborative effort involves SIU Carbondale’s School of Social Work, Department of Psychology and the Clinical Center; and the School of Medicine’s Physician Assistant Program, the Family Medicine Residency Program, the Family Medical Center in Carbondale and the Center for Rural Health and Social Service Development. Also, the SIU Edwardsville School of Nursing at Carbondale and Shawnee Health Care are involved. The School of Social Work and the School of Medicine are the collaborators receiving the grant funding. 

The project incorporates several elements, including training for providers to assess and address the needs of older adults and their caregivers or families individually and at the community level. The grant will help foster an integrated geriatric and primary care system and provide community-based programs to give people the knowledge and skills to improve the care quality and health of older adults. 

Already about 17.7 percent of the state’s population is older adults, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Ruth Heitkamp, rural health project specialist for the Center for Rural Health and Social Services, said. By 2030, officials estimate 24 percent of the Illinois population will be elderly, so there is a real and growing need to adequately care for them, she said. 

“There are so many competing needs and the geriatric population is going to be hit hard in the next 10 years as the population ages,” Heitkamp said. 

The project is designed to educate people about aging adults and their issues and transform existing primary care systems to meet those needs, according to Elaine Jurkowski, project co-director and SIU professor of social work. 

“It is exciting to bring together various groups on campus and in the community that have expertise in different aspects of care for the elderly,” Dr. Sharon Smaga, project co-director and professor of Clinical Family and Community Medicine and physician at SIU Family Medicine Clinic in Carbondale, said. “The collaboration will hopefully improve the knowledge of providers and caregivers as well as improve services to the elderly in the region.” 

The downstate initiative includes several elements, Jurkowski said. The SIU partners will conduct a needs assessment, determining what problems and issues the elderly and their caregivers and families have as well as what services exist for the elderly at this time. The team will then look at ways the services can be consolidated or coordinated. 

The aging population faces a myriad of health issues including various forms of dementia or mental health problems, pain, medication management, arthritis and other difficulties. Jurkowski noted that the elderly often battle depression and memory issues and their first response to a health issue may be to call 911, even if that’s not appropriate for the non-emergency situation. The grant will help educate older adults, families, caregivers, direct care workers and health professionals about the many chronic health issues and cognitive problems, and what resources are available to help them with the issues. 

The project includes the development of free, online, interactive educational modules for family members, caregivers, professionals and students. A network of health ambassadors, including home health/personal care aides as well as family and community members will be trained to assist with onsite assessment of the elderly and their needs and to provide counsel and reassurance to the aged and the people caring for them, Jurkowski said. The goal is to initially enroll 25 rural volunteers to train as health ambassadors. 

The initial group of ambassadors will begin training in early 2016. Professional and lay people are welcome to participate, she said. To volunteer to be part of the pilot project, contact Jurkowski by email at or by calling 618/453-2243. 

Another project phase calls for combining current evidence-based programs for managing physical and mental issues commonly occurring in the elderly into a set of operating protocols that best use provider, patient and community resources. Experienced personnel will share their expertise as they assist in the SIU Family Medicine Clinic and the Shawnee Health Service Carterville Clinic as well. 

In addition, the Center for Rural Health and Social Service Development will work with Emergency Medical Services providers to conduct wellness checks and other specified activities to monitor the health of geriatric patients from participating clinics and health care providers. 

The project is a win-win for the elderly, those who work with the aged and the community at large, Jurkowski said. Caregivers will know how to better meet the needs of the geriatric population, student interns will get practical experience in the field, the community will have a more cohesive network providing needed care to older adults and the elderly will receive the mental and physical care they need. 

Here’s a scenario that Jurkowski said plays out often. An elderly adult is hospitalized for one ailment or another and with improved health, is sent home a few days later, often with prescriptions for continuing treatment. However, the patient may have no way of getting the prescriptions filled and within a few days, the ailment worsens and they are calling an ambulance for a ride back to the hospital. But, with improved health care literacy, someone within the system will be making sure that the geriatric patient gets those prescriptions filled before arriving home or by delivery shortly thereafter.  It sounds simple, but it’s a big deal for the patient and the system, she said. 

“The goal of this project is to build the capacity and improve access to needed services for older adults and their caregivers,” Jurkowski said. 

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded more than $35.7 million in grants to 44 health professions schools or programs in 29 states to benefit older adults.