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Federal Government Taps SLU to Improve Care for Missouri’s Older Adults

by Nancy Solomon
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Nancy Solomon

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A $3.75 million federal grant to Saint Louis University builds upon its 30-year legacy of educating, studying and caring for older adults to further advance geriatric care across Missouri.

Geriatric Assessment

A 2017 geriatric assessment at SLU's Health Resource Center involves students and professionals from social work and multiple medical and health disciplines to identify possible physical and mental health and social problems in older adults.  SLU File Photo

Partnering with multiple educational, patient care and service organizations and supported by a new five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, SLU will expand its previously funded work. Through its Geriatric Workforce Enhancement Program (GWEP) grant, SLU will:

For more than a quarter of a century, SLU has received funding from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), part of the Department of Health and Human Services, to develop creative ways to train physicians, nurses, therapists, other health professionals and students to care for older adults. HRSA grants particularly target improving care for those who are economically vulnerable, at risk of medical problems and geographically isolated.

“The growth of Missouri’s geriatric population is outpacing the number of doctors trained to care for them,” said John Morley, M.D., Saint Louis University’s co-investigator on the project.

He is joined by Marla Berg-Weger, Ph.D., LCSW, executive director of SLU’s Geriatric Education Center and professor of social work at SLU, as a co-investigator on the project.

“With this grant, we will expand geriatric education to train more health care practitioners from multiple fields to detect and treat diseases and other problems in those who are older, using telemedicine and other strategies to reach those who live in rural and underserved areas,” Morley said.

Details of the grant

The grant will impact older adults in every congressional district in the state. It targets underserved areas in St. Louis City and County, five Missouri counties in the Kansas City area, Perry County in southeast Missouri and eight counties in northeast Missouri.

Collaborative partners include A.T. Still University of Health Sciences, SSM Health, University of Missouri School of Nursing, Perry County Memorial Hospital, Alzheimer’s Association, Missouri Area Health Education Center, Care STL Health, Northside Youth and Senior Service Center, Inc., Kansas City Care Health Center, Mid-America Regional Center, Memory Care Home Solutions and NHC Maryland Heights.

SLU will receive $750,000 in grant funding for each of the next five years.

Creating age-friendly communities

Missouri lags behind most other states in embracing the age-friendly movement, which supports older adults so they can enjoy good health and fully participate in community activities.

The grant tackles the health side of the equation, replicating successful age-friendly care models that teach students and professionals to screen for geriatric problems such as unclear thinking, opioid addiction and frailty and treat patients and their caregivers.  The grant supports fostering a health care system that responds to the needs of older adults that considers:

  • What matters to patients
  • Avoiding harmful medications
  • Screening and treating mental problems, such as dementia
  • Making it easier for older adults to get around
Fighting social isolation and loneliness

One of the key pillars of SLU’s grant is expanding a successful Circle of Friends program started in Perry County to combat social isolation and loneliness among older adults. Between 30 and 50 percent of older adults say they are sometimes lonely and 10 percent say they always are lonely. Loneliness can trigger a host of physical and mental health and social problems.

“Lonely people tend to become socially isolated, depressed and feel too sad to do anything. Because they are inactive, they become frail, which both worsens their current health problems and creates new ones,” Morley said.

The program will have a telehealth component that reaches older adults who live in rural areas or are home-bound.

“We are excited to have the opportunity to share this evidence-based intervention to improve the quality of life for older adults. Training has already begun in the St. Louis area and will continue to expand throughout the state,” Berg-Weger said.

Detecting and treating dementia

The need for dementia care is growing in Missouri. Currently, 110,000 Missourians are estimated to have dementia, and the number is expected to increase 18% — growing to 130,000 — by 2025.

Saint Louis University has been designated as North America’s official training site for Cognitive Stimulation Therapy, a non-pharmacologic treatment for dementia that stimulates memory through engaging guided group activities. Medical evidence has found that CST, which was founded in the United Kingdom and has been studied for nearly two decades, is as effective as drugs at treating dementia.

In person and through a new telehealth platform, SLU will continue to train caregivers, students and health care professionals in facilitating CST sessions. In addition, 15,000 older Missourians will be screened for cognitive problems, so they can receive the care they need.

Building on educational leadership

Saint Louis University has a proven track record for teaching other professionals the best practices in caring for older Missourians, and through the grant will continue to improve the quality of life for the state’s older residents.

“During the past four years, we educated nearly 7,000 health professionals and community members, screened nearly 12,000 elderly patients for geriatric problems and reached 17,676 through social media, educating the general public about health problems faced by older adults,” Morley said.

“We are both humbled and gratified that the federal government has entrusted us to continue the important work that supports elderly Missourians in living their best lives.”

Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first medical degree west of the Mississippi River. The school educates physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health care on a local, national and international level. Research at the school seeks new cures and treatments in five key areas: infectious disease, liver disease, cancer, heart/lung disease, and aging and brain disorders.