One Pennsylvania nursing home is trying a new approach to treating residents with mental health issues by experimenting with an innovative new pilot program.

Gracedale Nursing Home — located in Nazareth, PA, and operated by the County of Northampton — is launching a new offering called the Mental Health/Aging Program. With it, they plan to enhance the lives of its residents by providing one-on-one counseling and support to address behavioral challenges.

The ultimate goal, they say, is to maintain residency for such seniors, who are often difficult to place. The county’s population is aging, and with the closure of the state hospital, many individuals have nowhere to turn, Sue Wandalowski, Director of Human Services, told McKnight’s.

“Most nursing homes are unable or unwilling to accept residents who have significant mental illness,” she said. “Those folks, as they age, require long-term care, and have a right to be able to access that. And as a county home, we make every effort to serve all of our folks who are in need.”

Northampton County just sent out a request for proposals, seeking an outside, contracted provider to launch the pilot. They envision a team, led by a licensed behavior specialist, who is joined by a certified peer specialist — a trained older adult who has previously grappled with mental illness, and can speak to other residents. Rounding out the team would be a counsellor to provide support in the nursing home, along with a program manager/case manager.

Wandalowski couldn’t say, yet, how much the program may cost or its exact structure, as they are still waiting for proposals to trickle in. Thus far, however, they’ve received an “overwhelming response.”

Proposals are due by Aug. 20, and Gracedale hopes to launch the pilot in September, to last for about a year. Those involved stress that they do not see this as a 24-hour, on-call service, or any sort of “severe” crisis intervention.

If it’s successful, they hope to extend the program to other nursing homes across the county. Possible measures of success will include maintaining residence, providing support and relief for staff and residents in the community, and making sure that residents receive high-quality care, Wandalowski said. Contracted providers would serve as “mentors” to nursing home staff to learn more about behavioral healthcare.

“We’re excited to finally be able to pilot this program, and are optimistic that this will be an invaluable service to our residents at Gracedale, and eventually to other long-term care facilities in Northampton,” she said.