older woman in telehealth appointment
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As resident mental health and well-being top the list of challenges for affordable senior housing providers, one operator is sharing its playbook on a successful telewellness program.

Davis Park, vice president of the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing, shared the success of the organization’s technology-based behavioral health program  on Wednesday during a LeadingAge membership call.

Using a LeadingAge Innovations Fund grant awarded in 2016, the California-based senior living provider Front Porch launched a pilot study of a telehealth supportive counseling program for older adults in two of its affordable senior housing communities as well as a community center. 

The pilot successfully provided accessible mental health services through video conferencing and iPads to underserved older adults, according to the company. Older adults, Park said, face barriers to mental health treatment, including decreased mobility, socioeconomic and cultural / linguistic challenges, as well as the stigma of mental illness.

“Our biggest challenge was in overcoming stigma,” he said. “We hit a huge brick wall that kept people from asking questions or even stepping forward to say they needed help.”

Then the pandemic hit. 

With society in lockdown, Park said, older adults no longer felt the stigma or pressures from others to “just pray harder” to address their needs. Residents, he said, felt more comfortable reaching out and having one-on-one consultations with providers.

“We heard from therapists that it changed a lot of lives,” he said, adding that Front Porch rolled out the program to multiple communities following the pilot program. 

Although the pilot used iPads, demand during the pandemic made it difficult to distribute devices and provide training on them, so Front Porch began offering the service via telephone as well. Park said the program was just as effective, adding that more and more residents now are using their own smartphones or tablet devices to connect with counselors after the pandemic led to increased adoption of mobile technology.

So Front Porch created a ’telewellness playbook’ to help affordable senior housing providers connect with local, community-based resources to build mental and behavioral health programs. 

Providers looking to launch similar programs will need to have a service coordinator or manager willing to champion the program, Park said, adding that communities need resident engagement and buy-in for such programs to work. 

“They must have an understanding that it takes work, but the payoff and the improvement of resident well-being is really just worth it,” he said, adding that affordable senior housing is ripe for telewellness programming.

“We would love to see more communities adopt this,” Park said.

The playbook includes resources and training to help facilities establish and sustain a telewellness program. 

Park said he suggests communities do a little homework to understand the problems they are addressing before launching a telewellness program, including the mental health conditions most prevalent in a community. The next layer should be increasing broadband infrastructure and internet connectivity.

Service coordinator funding needed, groups say

Speaking of service coordinators, on Thursday, LeadingAge joined the American Association of Service Coordinators in a letter calling on the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to immediately release authorized funding for the national service coordination program. They also called on the government to take steps to improve program administration in the future to avoid funding delays that disrupt services to low-income older adults in affordable housing.

Congress approved renewing 1,500 service coordinator grants, but for the second consecutive year, providers have been with a funding delay of at least nine months, according to the letter. The delay has led to a pause in “critical programming,” service coordinator layoffs and providers temporarily shifting funds away from other needs, the organizations said. 

“HUD’s consistent and unacceptable delays in funding the service coordinator program put inordinate financial pressure on providers, who are forced to find dollars elsewhere,” LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan said. “Where service coordinator hours and programming must be cut from budgets, older adults feel the pain.”

Clean energy investments in Inflation Reduction Act

Affordable housing providers also may be able to benefit from the more than $25 billion included in the Inflation Reduction Act to improve energy efficiency and climate resilience.

The act, passed by Congress Aug. 12 and signed by President Biden Aug. 16, includes subsidized housing by HUD and Low Income Housing Tax Credits, according to an analysis by the National Housing Trust

HUD programs, including Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly, are eligible for $1 billion to support clean energy investments, according to LeadingAge. Those projects must improve energy or water efficiency, indoor air quality or sustainability; improve the use of low-emission technologies, materials or processes, including zero-emission electricity generation energy storage or building electrification; address climate resilience; and energy and water benchmarking.

A separate $4.3 billion HOMES Rebate Program from the Department of Energy will provide rebates for the energy efficiency retrofit projects to buildings to reduce energy usage. 

Another $4.5 billion High-Efficiency Electric Home Rebate Program will provide rebates for qualified building electrification upgrades, with building owners eligible for up to $500 per project, with a maximum rebate of $14,000. Projects can include heat pumps, electric stoves, cooktops, ranges or ovens; insulation, air sealing and ventilation; and electric writing.