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Q&A: Social worker says Peoria is 'rich in resources' for seniors struggling with mental health

Kellie Branch-Dircks, a service care coordinator and social worker for ALS United Chicago's Central Illinois chapter.
Camryn Cutinello
Kellie Branch-Dircks, a service care coordinator and social worker for ALS United Chicago's Central Illinois chapter.

Winter and the holidays can be an isolating time for senior citizens.

Mobility issues can prevent seniors from leaving their homes and family can become too busy to visit.

Kellie Branch-Dircks is a service care coordinator and social worker for ALS United Chicago's Central Illinois chapter. She hosts talks through Peoria County Triad to help seniors who may be struggling with mental health connect with resources.

WCBU's Camryn Cutinello spoke with Branch-Dircks about these resources and why mental health concerns rise during the holidays.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why do we see increases in mental health struggles during the holidays?

Kellie Branch-Dircks: Primarily during the holidays, we all look at the holidays as it's a great time. It's like a Hallmark commercial 24/7 in the month of December. But for many people, it's actually very stressful, you know, financial concerns, expectations that people have of them or that they have themselves, and many are actually isolated and don't get to participate in the joys of the holiday. So by those situations alone, it can lead to feelings of depression.

We hear a lot about seasonal affective disorder. Do you see impacts from that?

Branch-Dircks: Absolutely. Anytime the time changes, and it gets colder out, it's darker out, we naturally don't want to be out there enjoying the weather. We want to be inside, which increases isolation because people aren't getting out as much. But that also means people aren't coming to visit our seniors or those with healthcare needs quite as often either. The other thing is that during the holidays, especially for older adults who might be coping with loss of loved ones, it's a big reminder of who they don't have with them this year.

What are the professional services in greater Peoria that exist for seniors?

Branch-Dircks: Peoria is really rich in resources for those of the seniors that have a health condition like ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, there are resources available to help with isolation to help get them out, there's counseling available. And to be honest, all of the disease processes have some type of support or case management available for them through their health insurance. In addition to those there's community, there's several community and neighborhood programs that specifically focus on grandparents parenting grandchildren. And in fact, there's a counseling program right here at Bradley [University] that helps support a lot of the seniors with their mental health needs through counseling.

Are their financial barriers to any of these resources?

Branch-Dircks: It depends on the program, you know, through insurance, it's based on who your insurance is connected with. But in the community, if you have a need, reach out to the local community services. Everyone this time of year seems to come together and want to focus on making it the best possible. And there's a lot of drive to help support those that are living on limited budgets, we want them to have a holiday, too. So if there's a client out there, a senior out there, someone with health conditions that has a need, reach out and in all likelihood there's a program that's going to be willing to step up and support.

Are there things that people can, that seniors can do, in [their] daily lives try to boost that happiness?

Branch-Dircks: Absolutely. So how we think in what we do has a big impact on our mood and our behaviors. So some of the things that we recommend to help beat the holiday blues are things like taking a proactive approach. Instead of waiting till you're feeling depressed or overwhelmed. Let's do something about it in advance to build up that resilience. Things like just resolve to make the best holiday possible with whatever opportunities you have that come to you and commit to participating.

Plan to visit with any relatives and friends that are important to you. Of course, while taking precautions to protect health, and remembering that in this day and age of telehealth and televideo opportunities, we can still have visits with family over Zoom or electronics. And if you're not familiar with electronics, there are also resources out there that helps seniors become more savvy and how to use technology. Try a new activity, try a new hobby. Try a new event you've never gone to. You don't know what you might like until you've tried it out first.

What do you say to seniors who maybe don't want to reach out to professionals for mental health support?

Branch-Dircks: That's absolutely okay. First, I like to say though, if you are struggling and you're finding yourself in a state of mind that is really dark and you've had even thoughts of suicide, please reach out, contact your primary care provider, call 911, or the number for the National Suicide Hotline is 988. There will be someone there to talk to you and help support you if you are really struggling. If you don't want to reach out to your insurance or see someone professional, again with those community programs, and because we are such a rich area for people in the senior population, as well as those with health conditions that kind of forced you to be locked in. There are programs that will come to you to provide counseling. Sometimes there's just volunteers who are willing to stop in if you're connected with a church, try reaching out to them. There's all kinds of volunteers through churches that just want to come and be a friend.

The 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 800-273-8255 or 988.

Camryn Cutinello is a reporter at WCBU. You can reach Camryn at cncutin@ilstu.edu.