Geriatric ward will fill Black Belt needs

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 5, 2005

It’s a fact: Americans are living longer. It’s also a fact that as more Americans reach the ages of 60, 70, and 80, that more medical services are needed to deal with this increase in the elderly population.

Demopolis’s Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital is taking a big step towards filling those needs in the Black Belt. If all goes according to schedule, in October the hospital will open up a brand new unit specifically dedicated to treating mental health in the elderly.

“It’s a service this community and this region needs,” said Mike Marshall, CEO and Administrator of Whitfield Memorial. “The fact of the aging of the population means this is becoming more and more of an issue.”

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The need for such a unit at Whitfield Memorial is even greater, according to Marshall, because of the lack of geriatric mental health services in the region.

“This unit will serve a greater medical draw area than a lot of our services,” he said. “Selma doesn’t have one any more. If you go south, you don’t find one until you get to Mobile. The closest ones to us are in Tuscaloosa and Meridian.”

Alison Glass, Administrator for Marengo Nursing Home, offered a statement that while the final decision of where to transfer a nursing home patient would “always” be in the hands of the patient’s family and doctor, as long as the new Whitfield unit was well-run, she would welcome the chance for patients to stay closer to home.

Despite the “Geri-Psych” nickname for units like the one planned at Whitfield, Marshall says that images of tiny windows and rubber walls are vastly out of line with the services to be offered at the new unit.

“We haven’t picked a name yet, but it won’t have the term ‘psych’ in it,” he said. “This will not be a ‘psych ward.’ We certainly won’t have straight-jackets or anything like that. It’s going to be a short-term unit, with stays of only 12 days or less, primarily geared to Medicare patients.”

Another potential misconception, Marshall said, was that the unit would deal with Alzheimer’s patients.

“The unit will primarily deal with depression and other types of mental illness. A certain percentage of hip replacement patients are going to suffer from post-surgery depression. Stroke’s the same way.”

Marshall said the unit would attack patients’ depression on a variety of fronts.

“The unit will be under the supervision of a medical director specializing in the psychiatry of geriatric patients,” he said. “We’ll also have staff available for physical intervention for the patients…they’ll be able to do both physical and occupational therapy to help them overcome their illness.” The unit will also have outpatient services available to those who might need it.

Another point of emphasis for Marshall was the unit’s impact on the community aside from the improved medical service.

“We’re going to spend $300,000 to $400,000 on renovation, most of which will be done by locals,” he said. “The new unit will add 15 to 20 new jobs at the hospital. It represents an increase in payroll. So it has benefits on the economic side as well as the medical.”

Those benefits extend to the hospital as well.

“Everything we do is driven by the need in the community, “Marshall said. “But new services cannot be such a financial drain on the hospital that it prevents us from maintaining our current services in other areas. This unit, given the current system of Medicare reimbursement, should be able to be profitable.”

The bottom line, for Marshall, is that more people are in need of help, and that Whitfield Memorial will be able to provide it.

“People are working longer before retirement. There are more elderly parents living a long way from their children. There’s more loss of independence without a support system. It’s just common sense. We’re glad to be able to do it.”