Nfld. & Labrador

1 in 4 N.L. seniors has a mental health issue, providers struggle to cope

Some residents of Stella's Circle are aging out of their program and there aren't many places they can go.

Depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia are tripping up the province's senior supports

Lisa Browne, left, and Keri Chambers, right, stand outside the Brian Martin Housing Resource Centre, operated by Stella's Circle. (Marlayne Hardy)

According to a new report about the province's demographics and well-being, one-quarter of all seniors in Newfoundland and Labrador are living with a mental health problem or mental illness. 

The statistic appeared in the 2017 Vital Signs report, released Thursday, and was put together by Memorial University's Harris Centre and the Community Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador. The stat includes dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

But one St. John's organization is finding that it's the mental illnesses not commonly associated with age — depression, bipolar disorder, even schizophrenia — that are tripping up the province's senior supports.

Keri Chambers, left, and Lisa Browne, right, read the 2017 Vital Signs report. The report states that one-quarter of Newfoundland and Labrador seniors live with a mental health issue or illness. (Marlayne Hardy)

"It's difficult for people who have complex mental health needs to get into personal-care homes often," said Keri Chambers, an occupational therapist with Stella's Circle, a St. John's-based organization that provides support and housing for people struggling with homelessness, poverty, mental health and trauma.

"If you have a choice of taking somebody who doesn't have complex mental health needs versus [someone with] complex mental health needs, often times the person who doesn't will win out."

Meet Mary

"Mary" is in her late 60s and has schizophrenia. She'd been living in one of Stella's Circle's 78 housing units for about a decade when her health started to fail.

She had a tough time finding a physician because of her mental health issues, and also found it a challenge to get to doctor's appointments because of knee and hip problems.

After a complicated surgery, Mary needed more care than Stella's Circle could provide. So the organization began looking for a personal-care home where she could live.

It wasn't easy to find one.

Lisa Browne, the CEO of Stella's Circle, stands outside the organization's slogan, which gets lit for the Christmas season. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

"People who work in personal-care homes often do not have particular training around mental health issues," said Lisa Browne, CEO of Stella's Circle.

That can make it difficult for people with mental illness to be accepted into the homes.

At one point in time, 70 used to be old. Now to us in this industry, 70 is only young.- Cheryl Bishop 

Mary is an example that Browne and Chambers use to illustrate a new problem they're facing at Stella's Circle — some of their clients are well into their golden years. 

"I think at one time the people we worked with may have ended up in institutions or have died, because they lived very hard lives," said Chambers.

But now, living in one of Stella Circle housing units, they're living to a ripe old age, becoming seniors with a whole new set of needs — needs that Stella's Circle is not equipped to deal with. 

An increasing problem

Cheryl Bishop is the resident-care manager at Admiral's Coast Retirement Centre in Kelligrews, and agrees that more supports are needed for personal-care homes to care for seniors with mental health issues.

"We see a lot of bipolar [disorder]. We see a lot of depression," she said.

"Education from Eastern Health would be great to have so that the staff know how to deal with these things."

The Admiral's Coast Retirement Centre is located in Kelligrews. (Admiral's Coast Retirement Centre)

Wait times for residents to see geriatric psychiatrists can be months long, Bishop said, which only compounds the problem; if one resident is suffering and acting out, the rest of the residents see and feel it.

She said the problem is increasing, and, with an aging population in Newfoundland and Labrador, it's only going to get worse.

"I've worked in this home for the past 10 years so I can say yes, I do see it increasing," Bishop said.

"It is on a definite increase. It is a definite problem with our seniors."

Like Chambers and Browne, Bishop says the issue stems from people living longer.

"At one point in time, 70 used to be old," she said. "Now to us in this industry, 70 is only young."

Support to stay at Stella's Circle

The Stella's Circle team is working on a proposal for the federal government to support upgrades to some housing units to accommodate senior residents.

Often people come to us, and they sometimes don't have a lot of family support … and they don't have their own community.- Lisa Browne

They're also hoping to launch a research project looking at how they could help residents stay at Stella's Circle through their older years, rather than move to a personal-care home.

"Often people come to us, and they sometimes don't have a lot of family support … and they don't have their own community," said Browne. 

"So Stella's Circle becomes their community."

Keri Chambers, left, is an occupational therapist at Stella's Circle. Lisa Browne, right, is the CEO. (Marlayne Hardy)
When they finally found her a personal care home, said Browne, Mary struggled with being taken out of her community — so much so that her caretakers, who weren't trained to deal with her mental health issues, would call the police to help contain her when she was acting out.

Chambers also points out that with the province's population aging so quickly, personal care homes will be filling up, making it even more difficult to find spots for Stella's Circle senior residents.

"So they'll be in the community and we're going to have to figure out a way to support those individuals in the community," she said.

"Our organization, as well as other organizations in the province are going to have to figure out how to do that."

Stella's Circle offers many programs that help transform lives of struggling adults. (CBC)


Sarah Smellie is a journalist with the Canadian Press, based in St. John's. She has previously reported for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.