Senior centers are often community hubs for older adults, and as such, senior center staff play a vital role in connecting older adults to community resources for physical and mental health issues. Research shows, however, that the majority of older adults with behavioral health and substance use challenges do not get the care that they need. When senior center staff do not have sufficient training in these areas, mental health issues can go unaddressed. As the aging population in the United States continues to grow, behavioral health training is much needed and there is a lack of professional development opportunities to meet the current demand.
A new article by Prof. Bronwyn Keefe, director of The Network and the Center for Aging and Disability Education and Research (CADER) at Boston University School of Social Work (BUSSW) examines how CADER’s Behavioral Health in Aging Certificate program can address this gap in senior center staff training.
The Impact of Behavioral Health in Aging Training
Through CADER’s collaboration with the National Council on Aging (NCOA), a total of 228 senior center staff in three states completed the Behavioral Health in Aging (BHA) Certificate, an online program that trains staff in community-based agencies to address mental health challenges older adults may be facing. The program aims to increase early detection of behavioral health concerns, improve mental wellness programming in senior centers, and increase referrals to mental health providers for people who need additional care.
The paper notes significant changes in key competencies for staff after completing all of the courses in the certificate. Senior center staff who completed the certificate were satisfied with the program and experienced several opportunities for professional growth, both individually and at the organizational level.
Many staff members reported improved awareness of behavioral health concerns and better confidence in addressing issues.
“I think it will help with my observance of some older adults that might be facing issues. In the past, I might not have been aware of or overlooked the issue. Now I’m able to make an appropriate referral,” a staff member shared.
Participants found the Mental Wellness and Resilience Among Older Immigrants and Refugees course to be particularly impactful in this regard. One person noted:
“In the Mental Wellness and Resilience Among Older Immigrants and Refugees course, the
defining of needs of diverse populations was most powerful since I am a suburban kid who
doesn’t know that. Even though you think you know what they need, you don’t know. Cultural
sensitivity or humility – even though we talk about it, because the module was so in-depth, it
was more powerful.”
Since completing the certificate, the study found that more senior center staff were also forming connections with other community organizations to develop partnerships with the goal of providing mental health support to older adults.
One participant shared that their organization ‘has really been enhancing our mental health services and our work with licensed mental health counselors and social workers and reported that the BHA program ‘fortified our foundation or understanding of what is happening with mental health.’
CADER and NCOA believe that making the Behavioral Health in Aging Certificate available nationwide is an important step toward expanding mental health training initiatives. The paper found that the program’s high completion rates, improvements in competencies, and desire for additional training speak to the success of the certificate.
Training staff in community-based agencies can be a powerful intervention to increase knowledge and skills in behavioral health, which can result in better outcomes for older adults. In addition, increased training can lead to more programs addressing behavioral health, which can open up discussions around these topics and reduce stigma. Future efforts should focus on understanding the perspective of senior center directors and leadership to further extrapolate the impact of the Behavioral Health in Aging program on organizational programs and policy change. Additional state and federal funding is needed to support workforce training in order to sustain these important training initiatives and improve the care of older adults.
This article was originally published in Gerontology & Geriatric Education and co-authored by Corinne Beaugard (PhD ‘23) and Jennifer Tripken, associate director for the Center of Healthy Aging at the National Council on Aging (NCOA).
Read the article here.
Learn more about the Behavioral Health in Aging Certificate.