By B.J. Coleman
Few people relish in growing old. From anti-aging facial lotions to other rejuvenation potions, today’s aging individuals are eager to fight against increasing infirmities and incapacities formerly thought to be inescapable accompaniments of an abundance of calendar years.
There is one key in this battle: not merely passively becoming elderly but actively continuing to grow even while advancing in years. This is the guiding philosophy of a new program from San Diego’s Jewish Family Service organization. It reinforces the mindset that the tally of years does not have to take an inevitable, permanent toll on the body, mind and spirit of elder San Diegans.
Working in conjunction with additional funding from a Kaiser Foundation grant targeting behavioral mental health interventions benefitting older adults, the JFS Aging Well Group now offers county residents over the age of 60 the opportunity to attend a 12-week cycle of sessions for training and support in cognitive behavioral therapy techniques that address problems of depression, anxiety and social isolation. The meetings are being held at the JFS College Avenue Center, 4855 College Ave., every Thursday from 1 – 2:30 p.m. JFS provides group members rides to the sessions, if needed, through the organization’s “On the Go” transportation service.
Dr. Bruce Sachs is the clinical psychologist serving as lead facilitator for the group meetings, designed to include up to 10 participants. The first meeting was conducted on Jan. 29, with six eligible enrollees as initial participants in the program. A public outreach information campaign about the group began in December at churches and nonprofit organizations. Sachs is still interviewing seniors interested in being among the early set of attendees accessing the first cycle of this service.
Participants are able to join the group at any session in the revolving quarterly cycle, and choose specific sessions based on personal interest and relevance of the topic of the week. Each weekly meeting is evenly split, with the first 45 minutes devoted to a lesson Sachs presents on specific coping strategies and methods for overcoming stress and distress factors, and the second 45 minutes open for general group therapy support covering individual personal issues and discussing effects of implementation of last week’s coping strategy methods.
Sachs notes that the need for this service is great, as recent surveys indicate that over 40 percent of seniors in central regions of San Diego County suffer under such financial straits they lack adequate money for the basic necessities of life. This covers an estimated 20,000 individuals living in the area. Of these, approximately 1,400 encounter emotional issues, mental health troubles and substance abuse problems. These are some of the aging San Diegans this new program is seeking to enlist and assist.
Moreover, residents 60 and up are the fastest growing demographic group in the county. People of this age stand at 12 percent of the local population but account for 21 percent of those falling prey to suicide.
“We haven’t done a program like this before,” Sachs said.
His background and expertise combine specializations in group therapy methods and psychotherapeutic interventions for seniors. He describes the benefits of cognitive behavioral psychotherapy as giving participants immediately applicable coping techniques for quick relief of symptoms of emotional distress and mental disquiet. He anticipates a learning process on both sides, as he adjusts subject matter and techniques to make the group’s training lessons increasingly effective.
The instruction covers good habits and practices for holistic health. Exercise and nutrition sessions focus on maintaining a healthy body while aging. Sachs said that physical exercise has been proven to be as effective as anti-depressive medications for treatment of mild to moderate depression. Relaxation exercises teach skills in controlled breathing, guided imagery and meditation. Other sessions are intended to deal with anti-anxiety coping strategies to diminish fear and agitation. Sachs says that the intent is to provide tools and support for a direct impact in improving the lives of individuals in the group. And the overall objective is for group participants to feel as good as they can, given their particular circumstances and medical conditions.
What are any limitations Sachs foresees? He observes that some persons are so habituated in unhealthy patterns of life that they might be helped by referral to individual therapy. Issues with alcohol and drug abuse will not be covered in the group sessions, although those participants self-medicating for chronic pain or loneliness will be taught other coping mechanisms. Identified currently intractable substance abusers in the group will be advised about seeking appropriate interventions elsewhere. Outcomes will also be influenced by the mix of people in the group, the level of cohesion they can reach and the cooperative attitudes they bring into the gatherings.
Those interested in this service can receive more information from JFS by calling 877-537-1818 on weekdays between 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Friday, when the hours are 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. A brief phone intake interview will cover basic demographic information and medical insurance coverage. Fees are charged on a sliding scale based on income. A subsequent, required in-person screening interview with Dr. Sachs will gauge applicants’ interest level as well as the cognitive, hearing and speech fluency skills needed of group members.
Sachs emphasizes that the JFS Aging Well Group is open to the entire community, to any senior who wants to change for the better by acquiring stronger coping abilities. He describes the challenge now as getting the word out about the service to those who can expect meaningful results from being part of the program.
–Contact B.J. Coleman at firstname.lastname@example.org