Severely mentally ill residents: A ‘perfect storm’ creates a SNF wave

Long-term care facilities are admitting more residents with longstanding psychiatric illnesses. Such individuals enter the nursing home for physical rehabilitation but are difficult to discharge back to the community due to their mental health needs, weak or nonexistent support networks and unstable prior housing situations.

This column focuses on why the severely mentally ill (SMI) population is increasing, and the impacts of this change and on strategies to manage care.

A mounting possibility

I predict we’ll be seeing greater numbers of SMI residents due to the combination of factors outlined below.

The movement toward deinstitutionalization in the 1970s and 1980s closed many psychiatric facilities without increasing community assistance. Because of the lack of community resources, parents of children with severe mental illness frequently became their lifelong supports.

Many SMI people are now over 50 years old; their caregiver parents are in their seventies and eighties. Older parents are less able to provide financial, practical and emotional aid for their adult children due to their own aging and health problems.

In addition, as adults with SMI get older themselves, they’re increasingly likely to experience medical problems requiring hospitalization and rehab, which brings them to our doors.

To estimate the numbers of older SMI individuals, I looked at statistics on mental illness and aging. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 2.7% of US adults aged 50 and older were diagnosed with SMI in 2016. In 2014,  AARPnotes that there were 108.7 million people aged 50 and over in the US. Combining these statistics gives us a rough estimate of almost 3 million SMI adults over age 50 in the US, with the number increasing as the baby boomers age.

I looked at the statistics on LTCfocus.orgto ascertain whether this trend toward increasing numbers of people with SMI in LTC is beginning. The data show the numbers of residents diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder between the years of 2000 and 2016. In my state, New York, 6.45% of residents had those diagnoses in 2000; in 2016 it was 11.8%. In Pennsylvania, the numbers increased during that time period from 4.45% to 9.3%. California: 8.87% to 15%. Texas: 4.91% to 13.4%.

The pattern is clear.

As a complicating factor, the US healthcare system has distinguished between treatment for physical health and mental health. There are very few institutional or community resources that are able to care for people with both physical and mental health impairments. There is virtually nowhere to discharge residents without family support who need assistance for comorbid medical disorders and severe mental illness.

Thus we have a perfect storm of treatment failures for our aging severely mental ill population and one that’s likely become more critical as the number of aging SMI individuals increases due to demographic shifts.

Severely mentally ill residents: A ‘perfect storm’ creates a SNF wave

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