By Christo­pher Oak Reinier

       “We see people who have had really hard lives. You combine poverty with aging, health decline, and isolation and you have a formula for serious depression and suicide. We deal with people who need more contact but usually don’t have the transportation to get themselves out. We come to their home and it’s free. Our purpose is to prevent serious crises, to help home-bound people who would not be able to afford therapy, if they could find it.” Pic of Melissa w her dog

     Melissa Fike, MFT, is West County Community Services Director of Senior Adult Counseling Services. She doesn’t always have help from her dog, Reba, but, from her office on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa, she oversees several counseling programs which WCCS offers seniors in Sonoma County. In addition to administering in-home senior peer counseling and peer counseling groups, Melissa supervises in-home therapy for 20 to 30 very low-income, at-risk seniors through the Older Adult Collaborative (OAC) program.

     “I think people who are home bound and alone can lose perspective, run things over and over in their heads and get stuck in thought loops that are self-defeating.  Having someone come to their homes can give them a sounding board to help make that thinking overt and interrupt what can be a depressive rut.

     “Often clients have never had a chance to tell their story, and as they are looking toward the end of their life, the opportunity to tell their story and put those burdens down can be profound.  Just to have their story witnessed by somebody, feel heard, even honored, can be really helpful.”

     The purpose of the OAC program is to prevent severe depression and suicide in older adults through early intervention. The program reaches out to aging adults (mostly low income) who lack the resources to help themselves. OAC was developed around 2009 when five senior-focused agencies throughout Sonoma County decided to collaborate on a program and apply for available funds together, rather than compete for them. 

     OAC is funded through Sonoma County Behavioral Health with Mental Health Services Act dollars.  The Adult and Aging Division of the Human Services Department of Sonoma County is the lead agency and subcontracts with other members of the Collaborative. Collaborative members screen their clients for risk of serious depression and suicide and determine the most appropriate intervention. The County’s Department of Behavioral Health is also involved in assessing cases and referring them to different agencies in the Collaborative, depending on which agency seems most appropriate for the case.

     Melissa receives referrals for seniors living in the County and determined to need therapy.  She matches them with a clinical intern, a person who is completing work for a counseling license. The intern meets with the clients in their home for therapy sessions once a week for ten weeks. Clients needing more help after the ten week period can be referred to other support programs. But the program is generally quite effective in enabling clients to better manage their struggles and gain healthier balance and perspective.

     “You can teach people how to manage anxiety and depression, but the gift is to have someone really listen to them, for them to be able to talk with someone about their situation.  Often with that supportive sounding board, they can regroup and not feel so overwhelmed by the situation they are facing.”

     And Reba would be glad to listen and be petted, O yes!  But… that’s another program.