Program Offers ‘Stepping Stones’ to Navigate Elderly Health

Photo provided by USC Verdugo Hills Hospital The award-winning Stepping Stones program at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital meets the needs of patients grappling with geriatric psychiatry challenges.
Photo provided by USC Verdugo Hills Hospital
The award-winning Stepping Stones program at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital meets the needs of patients grappling with geriatric psychiatry challenges.

A multidisciplinary team facilitates nearly 50 admissions and discharges per month.
By Michael BRUER

One of the most highly lauded programs in the nation is located right in our own backyard. The Stepping Stones program at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital is a geriatric psychiatry program that addresses a wide range of issues in its patients, from depression due to grief and loss to loss of independence, and behaviors as a result of dementia, Alzheimer’s dementia and vascular dementia.

The program began in May 1995 as a 24-bed Geropsychiatric Unit. The unit provides inpatient care to the specialized geriatric population. In addition to the aforementioned diseases, the program also treats patients with long-term chronic mental illness such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. Many of the patients get stabilized, but then some stop taking their medications for financial reasons, and end up back in the program due to relapse.

According to Program Director Kathy Hillis, some patients are forced to make a difficult decision.

“We find this to be especially true for patients [who] return home,” said Hillis. “They don’t always have the money to buy medications and are forced to choose among eating, paying the electric bill or buying the medications they need.”

Nearly 50 admissions and discharges of patients in the program occur each month. Those patients typically range in age from 75 to 80 years old. Men and women attend the program about equally, and the average stay within the program is 12-14 days. The patients attend the program two to three days per week on average. But it should be noted that each patient maintains an individualized treatment program, and some patients may have a shorter or longer stay depending on their response to treatment.

Following their discharge from the program, patients are placed in the outpatient program for follow-up.

“It’s nice to see the families and meet the loved ones,” Hillis said of the results of the program. “I can tell that they really appreciate the help and [knowing] that their loved one was taken care of. To see that is certainly rewarding.”

The program utilizes four psychiatrists who admit patients to the unit. A multidisciplinary team of nurses, social workers and certified nurses’ aides with many years of experience comprise the team of healthcare professionals that staff this award-winning program. Hillis is aided by the clinical coordinator of the program, Ani Sinanyan, a fellow nurse with many years of psychiatric experience. In June 2010, Psychiatric Solutions, Inc. and Horizon Health named Stepping Stones Program of the Year during an annual program director leadership conference. The recognition is especially noteworthy, considering Stepping Stones edged out over 100 other programs across the United States to be selected. In 2012, Stepping Stones was recognized again as one of five finalists for program of the year.

“It is an honor we sincerely appreciate, and one which showcases our clinical expertise and the quality of care,” said Hillis. “The recognition has encouraged us to continue to look at performance improvement. We are constantly looking at patient safety, reducing falls, and the overall quality of care for our patients.”

Patients are referred for enrollment in the program from nursing and assisted living facilities, board and care homes, or family, friends and other patients in addition to other hospitals. Referral sources may call the direct line at (818) 952-2270 where staff can take patient information.

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