MARQUETTE - When the Senior Provider Network was founded six years ago to create an avenue for communication and improve services to seniors in Marquette County, members wouldn't have guessed just how beneficial it would be, or that they might become a model for senior care around the state.
Ruth Almen, Upper Peninsula regional director of the greater Michigan chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, said she and Lori Stephens-Brown, director of AMCAB community nutrition services, saw a need for collaboration among agencies to spur dialogue and share resources at a time of dwindling state and federal funding.
"Part of what we said when this group got together was, in the spirit of collaboration, what was our common ground?" Almen said. "Because we really wanted to bring people together so that it was fun, so that people kept coming - and not really get territorial about things, but keep this real, clear focus about who the people were that we were serving."
Regional Director for the Alzheimer’s Association Ruth Almen, left, and Alger Marquette Community Action Board Senior Meals Director Lori Stephens-Brown discuss recent budget concerns in Almen’s office at 309 S. Front St., in Marquette on Tuesday, in preparation for a meeting next Wednesday with the Senior Provider Network and the Director of the Michigan Office of Services to the Aging Kari Sederburg. (Journal photo by Mary Wardell)
The group, which meets once a month, includes people who serve the senior population at all levels, whether they be directors, social workers or other care providers.
Co-chairs Almen and Stephens-Brown found it was so successful that this year, they decided to take the group a step further to include more agencies and community groups who serve the senior population, like law enforcement, non-profits, community groups, the prosecutor's office and legislative representatives. They held an initial meeting last week with more than 40 people in attendance, and they found, Almen said, that everyone had something important to contribute.
"We're really concerned about those scenarios (where people) specifically are in danger physically and emotionally," Almen said. "And obviously our specific concern is how do we respond as a community to people (who), maybe because of Alzheimer's disease, don't have the ability to say, 'I'm in danger' or, 'My loved one's in danger.' And how does the community then respond because ... just because you have Alzheimer's doesn't mean you can't make a very good argument about things."
The unique challenges posed by Alzheimer's and dementia make education and training within communities a vital goal of the Senior Provider Network, because it can be hard to know how to handle a situation or who to contact when it's not clear if it's dangerous or not.
"You could have an 80-year-old that is sharper than we are and able to take care of themselves," Stephens-Brown said. "And you could have an 80-year-old that is more childlike in their ability to care for themselves, so who decides that? Where does that information stay? All those questions make it kind of tangly."
And in light of recent findings, the ongoing conversation about elder abuse and the myriad challenges seniors face has just become extremely timely.
A July performance audit of the Michigan Department of Human Services found that, since 2010, efforts in evaluating Adult Protective Services program to protect vulnerable adults were not effective, that referrals of adult abuse were occasionally denied or withdrawn when justification for an investigation existed and that law enforcement was not consistently notified. They found that APS investigations were not conducted according to DHS established standards of promptness, that face-to-face contacts with clients were not always conducted, that DHS did not investigate all referrals and that DHS had not instituted continuing education training requirements for caseworkers and supervisors, among other things.
The department agreed with most of the findings in the report and DHS director Maura Corrigan said her agency is taking the audit findings seriously and promised changes for the adult protective services department.
But, according to Almen and Stephens-Brown, the problems are not with the systems themselves, but with funding. The two caseworkers in Marquette County who work on - not only APS cases, but also food benefits for low-income individuals and families - have 4-500 cases each.
"I have no doubt that the protective service system that's in writing, if they had the staffing to cover that, would be fantastic," Stephens-Brown said. "But it's a matter of funding."
In light of the need for creative solutions to reduce costs and improve services, newly appointed Director of the Michigan Office of Services to the Aging Kari Sederburg has taken notice of the positive things happening in the area. Almen and Stephens-Brown were given the opportunity to present on the importance of in-home care and improved senior services to legislators in Lansing in 2012, and that's where they met Sederburg.
"We just all kind of hit it off," Almen said. "(Sederburg is) just a riot; she's awesome. And she was kind of like, 'Oh good, my people.' And she saw what we were doing and said, 'You guys are doing what we wish other people were doing.'...The collaboration is kind of a unique thing up here."
Appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in June 2011, Sederburg serves as the chief advocate for Michigan's 1.9 million older adults and oversees nearly $93 million in federal and state funding for aging programs across Michigan. Sederburg advises the executive and legislative branches of government on shaping policies to help older adults remain in their communities with the supports and services they need.
Sederburg and her new deputy director, Leslie Shanlian, will be visiting Marquette Wednesday to meet with the expanded Senior Provider Network in person to continue this important conversation.
"Most of us are kind of run by our hearts," Stephens-Brown said. "You know, when it comes to our seniors, we know what we want to happen."
For information about senior services in Marquette County, contact a senior center near you. The Marquette Senior Center can be reached by calling 228-0456.
Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248.