Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Mentally ill should not be housed with senior citizens

Citizen Staff Writer
Our Opinion

It’s difficult to find a more vulnerable population than senior citizens who live in nursing homes.

Old, frail and sometimes in the throes of dementia, nursing home residents need intense care, supervision and protection.

Yet in Arizona and around the U.S., they increasingly are put in harm’s way. Some nursing homes, faced with too many empty beds, are housing violent mentally ill patients just across the hall from the often-infirm elderly.

An Associated Press analysis found that 1,357 mentally ill patients ages 22-64 were housed in Arizona’s nursing homes last year – a 39 percent increase over 2002.

Seniors across the U.S. have been beaten, raped and killed by mentally ill patients, the AP analysis found.

It’s not clear if that’s occurred in Arizona; the state’s Department of Health Services refused AP attempts to discuss the issue. But it may be only a matter of time.

“When they take a mentally ill individual and place them with a frail, incapacitated elderly person, that’s a prescription for harm,” notes Phoenix lawyer Martin Solomon, whose firm handles cases of elderly abuse.

Many cities have a shortage of psychiatric beds. And with healthy seniors living independently longer, many nursing homes have beds to fill.

Those institutions are all too willing to house the mentally ill. And as long as they keep that population under 50 percent, Medicaid will foot the bill.

The situation is unfair for all concerned. Elderly people should be safe in nursing homes, of course. But it’s also unfortunate that mentally ill people are warehoused in an inappropriate venue. Many can lead independent lives if given the support to manage their lives and stay on medications.

Arizona and other states must eliminate the financial incentives for nursing homes to house the mentally ill. The populations must be separated.

Just as Arizona’s prison system segregates juvenile offenders from hard-core convicts, so must the state keep predator and prey apart in nursing homes.

End incentives for housing the mentally ill with the elderly and help both populations lead safe lives.

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