Shrewsbury Board of Selectmen discusses older adult needs assessment

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By Melanie Petrucci, Senior Community Reporter

Shrewsbury – The Board of Selectmen met with Christine Mowry, executive director of Shrewsbury Youth and Family Services, and Jen Rifkin, director of clinical services, who reviewed a community-wide Older Adult Behavioral Health Needs Assessment at their July 21 meeting.

The assessment was approved by Town Meeting in the fall of 2019 because of growing concerns that segments of the older adult population was underserved. 

“There are nearly 8,000 residents over the age of 60,” Mowry reported. “What we did was we gathered data in several different manners.”

Data was collected from November 2019 through January 2020. Surveys by paper and electronic means were distributed to residents, providers and stakeholders. Topics ranged from isolation and loneliness to mental health, socialization, substance abuse, suicide and safety. 

“Although we distributed a really large number of surveys and tried to reach the most vulnerable population, we really had a significantly smaller response than we had hoped for,” Mowry said. “The data we are presenting tonight is reflecting just that small percentage of the population of 93 residents.”

Rifkin noted that data was collected from focus groups with residents from the Shrewsbury Housing Authority properties, Senior Center, residents at Orchard Grove, Shrewsbury Men’s Club and Shrewsbury Women’s Club.

Input was gathered from State Representative Hannah Kane (R-Shrewsbury), former Council on Aging (COA) outreach coordinator, Meals on Wheels, St. Anne’s Human Services, Shrewsbury Police and Fire chiefs, and Shrewsbury Public Library. 

Mowry provided a lengthy list of services provided in Shrewsbury, however some seniors said that the lack of transportation is a major concern which leads to isolation. 

“Meals on Wheels drivers really are the ones who are reaching the most vulnerable,” she added. 

Crisis response in town is non-existent and perhaps the most challenging has been the stigma attached to the lack of understanding of behavioral issues and seniors’ persistent beliefs that mental health problems show weakness.

Staff at the Shrewsbury Public Library have encountered a number of seniors who arrive under the influence or are confused and even psychotic. They are untrained to meet these needs.

Rifkin referenced COA service gaps such as limited outreach to the most isolated, communication barriers, and limited hours and activity options. 

“The reality is that the people who most need the Senior Center who may be struggling with the most significant mental health challenges are not accessing the Senior Center,” she said.

Recommendations that came out of the assessment involve a community-wide collaboration.

Of note is for the Shrewsbury Police Department to partner with Advocates, Inc. to develop a co-response jail diversion program to respond clinically to people in crisis.

Selectman John Samia inquired about any impact to services since COVID-19 after the assessment was completed in February. Mowry replied that the biggest concern has been food access but she also anticipates assessing technology and heating and oil in the fall.

Selectman Jim Kane was concerned that only 93 out of 8,000 seniors participated in the survey and that the most vulnerable and in need were not being reached.  

“I think the folks that are currently doing to best job of reaching the most isolated and the most vulnerable residents are probably the Meals on Wheels folks.  We have to find a way with the Council on Aging in particular to find a way to coordinate with Meals on Wheels to get that information,” remarked Rifkin.

Board Chair Beth Casavant said that to her it boils down to “coordination, collaboration and communication” to bring together the patchwork of available social services that exist within the community.