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Saving Lives, Giving Dignity

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AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Recently, our geriatric cat, Sara, was diagnosed with kidney disease. She's over 100 in people years and has lived a good life. Her nights used to be spent curled at my feet, a few feet from my bedside table, where I kept a bowl of fresh water. On occasions when I had forgotten to refill the bowl, she would meow loudly to remind me.


Now, she's too weak to jump on the bed or make it to the table, so she sleeps in a small, round, fluffy pet bed on the floor, her water bowl at her side. Her veterinarian said Sara is not in pain, and she looks content, just weak. Maybe she's happy to have lived so long and to know that she is loved and cared for. At least, I hope she is.

As her disease has progressed, she has had a harder time grooming herself. In the last week, I've begun combing her hair to get rid of the mats. While she can't tell me thanks, I believe that she is grateful to be cared for and glad to look a little better.

My son, Robert, mentioned a few days ago that it was terrible to see the deterioration happen in front of our eyes. He's right. But that's part of life, and of death.

Sara's inability to care for herself reminds me of what happened to my mother after she a suffered a stroke at age 76. It affected both sides of her body and left her temporarily unable to move. Eventually, she did regain the use of her hands and arms, but she was unable to move her legs during the last year of her life. She, too, needed additional care, especially initially -- hair brushed, lotion applied, face washed.

Understandably, after her stroke, she was initially incredibly depressed. My sister Kathy and I tried and tried to find a therapist to visit her, with no success. Her mood recovered over time with help from caregivers at the great facility where she was treated as well as visits and calls from her children, friends, former students and preacher.


A bipartisan bill called the Opioid Crisis Response Act was recently introduced. According to an article by Meredith Thompson in The Humanist, the bill "seeks to close legal loopholes and address regulations that have contributed to the epidemic. In short, the bill will make addiction treatment more accessible, make it harder to obtain illicit synthetic opioids, and promote research on alternatives for the treatment of pain."

Additionally, part of this bill addresses the need for licensed professional counselors to be able to accept Medicare to treat senior citizens with mental health issues. One of my close friends is an LPC practicing in rural Western North Carolina. Her practice has a waiting list of over 30 seniors, all of whom were referred by their physicians for mental health treatment.

Seniors in her area are seeing their physicians for physical symptoms, including stomach issues, chronic pain and headaches. Many of them are unable to leave their homes. The physicians state the symptoms are directly related to their patients' mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and pain pill dependence. These seniors are experiencing changes in their families, friendships, bodies and living situations, changes that adversely affect their mental health.

The LPCs work with physicians to get senior citizens the help they need, but without coverage from Medicare, access to therapists is limited.

As an example, my friend was treating a senior who was paying out of pocket. The patient had changes in her living situation and was trying to deal with her son's death due to overdose. She was experiencing extreme anxiety and depression and was leaving her home only for her appointments. After three appointments, she ran out of money. She is currently untreated and isolated at home.


Mental health issues affect many seniors. According to the American Psychological Association, 1 in 4 adults 65 and older "experiences a mental health problem such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or dementia." According to the National Council on Aging, people 85 years and older have the highest suicide risk. Within this age group, white men have the highest rate of suicide, six times the rate of the general population. People from 73 to 85 have the second-highest suicide rate.

It pains me to see that Sara is getting better treatment than many of our seniors.

This bill will make it easier for seniors to be treated by licensed therapists, and it will save lives. My mother didn't need it. She was blessed with a loving family and a great network of friends, but many are not so lucky. They all deserve to be cared for.


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