Secretary of Elder Affairs discusses resources available to support elders’ mental health needs


Massachusetts Secretary of Elder Affairs, Alice Bonner, PhD, RN

Photo/Lucyus Fevrier



By Bonnie Adams, Managing Editor

Boston – According to the Executive Office of Elder Affairs (EOEA), Massachusetts is projected to have 1,178,852 residents over the age of 65 by the year 2020. As such, the department oversees program designed to provide support services, information, options counseling, and education/training to assist older adults in making decisions about things such as healthcare, housing, jobs, nutrition and the next stage of their lives.

The department is overseen by Alice Bonner, PhD, RN, who, as the commonwealth’s secretary of elder affairs, has more than 25 years of experience as a geriatric nurse practitioner caring for older adults and their families. Bonner has also held positions in education and has served as the director of the Bureau of Health Care Safety and Quality at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and as director of the Division of Nursing Homes in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Baltimore, Md.

Recognizing that good mental and physical health go hand-in-hand, Bonner recently highlighted some of the programs the commonwealth offers to assist elder residents with their mental health needs.

Councils on Aging

Councils on Aging (COA) which are funded by Elder Affairs, serve as a resource for social and support services to elders, families and caregivers. COA outreach can include things such as checking in with the elder via weekly phone calls or nutrition programs which can also serve as a wellness check of sorts.

“The question is often how we find these people who may be living alone and/or are isolated, particularly in rural areas,” Bonner said. “We try to honor people’s wishes as much as possible and provide outreach to them at their home. This is where the services of a COA can be vital.”

Dementia care

Throughout her career, Bonner’s research has included studying dementia and how to best help those diagnosed the disease as well as their families.

“We are learning more about environments that support those with dementia, whether it be in a home or assisted living facility,” she said. “It’s important to create safe environments and have specially trained staff.”

Several Massachusetts communities will soon be piloting a program to establish themselves as “dementia-friendly communities,” which seeks to train officials, first responders and others in how to help those with dementia feel more comfortable.

 Elder abuse

To help deal with the issue of elder abuse, the EOEA oversees 22 Elder Protective Service (PS) agencies throughout the state. These agencies respond to the reports of elder abuse, which can include physical, emotional and sexual abuse, neglect by a caregiver, self-neglect and financial exploitation. Abuse can be reported to a PS or to the statewide Elder Abuse Hotline (800-922-2275).


PACE (Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly) is a Medicare and Medicaid program that helps people meet their healthcare needs in the community instead of going to a nursing home or other care facility. An all-inclusive program, it integrates mental health into overall care.

 Peer Specialists

In conjunction with the Department of Mental Health, EOEA offers a Peer Specialist program. An elder who has gone through a traumatic situation, such as a loss of a spouse, living situation or is facing a health crisis, can get specialized training which will then allow them to help another person who is going through a similar situation.

“The elder can say, ‘I know it’s hard, I’ve been there, too. I came out on the other side and you will, too,’” Bonner said.


As the population ages, there is an urgent, increased need for those who specialize in treating elders’ mental health, including geriatric psychiatrists, psychologists and clinicians.

“There is definitely a shortage of these types of practitioners. We need to encourage med students to go into this field,” Bonner said.

One initiative, Greater Lynn Senior Services (GLSS) Elder Mobile Mental Health Program, has been very successful so far, she said. The program delivers a range of critical mental health services to vulnerable elders and integrates them into the home environment in several North Shore communities. In the past seven years, GLSS has helped more than 300 consumers improve the quality of their lives through this program, according to its website.

 Suicide prevention

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, among those age 65+, white males comprise over 80 percent of all late-life suicides. Depression is almost always present. About one in five suicide attempts in the elderly ends in death, and firearms are the most common cause.

To help address this problem, agencies in both Bristol and Worcester have instituted elder suicide programs, Bonner said, designed to help those who may be in in peril.


The EOEA’s website offers diverse information and resources for elders and their families. Categories include: Assess My Needs; Find My Regional Elder Care Agency; People with Disabilities; Family Caregiver; Search for Services; and Embrace Your Future.

For more information on the services offered by the EOEA, visit, or call 800-243-4636.