A unique peer worker program developed on the NSW Central Coast is helping revolutionise the way older clients interact with those supporting their mental health journey.
They count among their ranks a career accountant, a retired engineer and the former CEO of a multinational charity.
Yet in addition to bringing decades of professional experience to the table, this inspiring group of individuals are also using their own lived experiences of both ageing and mental illness to provide inspiration and support for those who require it most.
The trio are part of a small group of individuals who are either employed or volunteer as part-time peer workers for the Central Coast Older Persons Peer Support (CCOPPS) program.
The program teams peer workers aged 50-plus with mental health workers and consumers and is a joint initiative of the local Specialist Mental Health Services for Older People (SMHSOP) and the community-managed organisation Central Coast Primary Care.
SMHSOP service manager Raichel Green says the program, believed to be the first of its kind designed specifically to meet the recovery needs of older consumers, arose from the lack of peer workers with a lived experience of ageing and mental illness.
Having consulted extensively with intended users of the service, in late 2015 Ms Green successfully applied for a $50,000 grant to run a 12-month pilot scheme. Every aspect was designed, developed, implemented and evaluated in association with those at the coal face, including consumers and peer workers. The program has now been embedded as a core part of the service offering.
“Our consumers told us they wanted someone who knew what it was like to lose a partner at the end of life, to know what it was like to consider going into supported accommodation, to know what it was like to become frail or to have multiple physical or mental health problems. They felt they couldn’t have those types of conversations with younger peer workers.” (Raichel Green)
Ms Green says the initiative operates across three broad strategies. The first has older peer workers working one-on-one with consumers to undertake personal recovery and lifestyle management, with a focus on reducing the impact of social isolation.
The second is a four-week group program, co-facilitated by both an older peer worker and a clinician, called Roads to Recovery. The third strategy provides community education about older people’s mental health and utilises older peer workers’ purposeful storytelling with the aim of challenging the dual stigmas attached to both ageing and mental health.
While the program has not been without its challenges, it has also been credited with improving the wellbeing of the people receiving the service as well as those who provide it.
CCOPPS peer worker Vicki Schramko describes being involved with the program as “the pinnacle” of her professional life. Ms Schramko, 72, had a long and distinguished career with the Red Cross and Smith Family but now works as a marriage and funeral celebrant while also working as a carer for her husband as he battles severe clinical depression.
Ms Schramko herself lives with bipolar disorder “with depression included” yet says she feels privileged to see the “miracles happening every day around the table” as a result of the CCOPPS program.
Feedback from consumers and clinicians has been positive with one specialist mental health worker noting the peer worker had “achieved more with the consumer in a few weeks than I have been able to achieve in two years”.
Ms Green says the service is currently in the process of publishing the results of the program evaluation that, once complete, will provide a model for older people’s mental health services across the country.
“There is an emotional passion involved to make a difference to someone who is in this boat. We are not psychologists or psychotherapists or doctors of medicine. But we are people who have lived experiences who are able to say we have got through them. I think the most important thing we do is to give hope.” (Vicki Schramko)
This case study is an extract from Living Well in Later Life: The Case for Change.