Senior psych, health care expands here

By Joe Stumpe | July 31, 2023

In her job running the Catholic Care Center, Cindy LaFleur knows it hasn’t always been possible to get immediate psychiatric care for residents needing it. Wichita’s only geriatric psychiatric unit, located in Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph on Harry Street, sometimes has a waiting list, which means an elderly person might be admitted to the emergency room instead.

“They could spend days in ER,” LaFleur said.

To meet that need, the Catholic Care Center last month opened St. Veronica Senior Behavioral Health Hospital, a 20-bed senior behavioral health hospital located on its campus at 45th and Woodlawn in Bel Aire. The facility is designed to be a short-term care program for seniors experiencing behavioral health challenges associated with depression, grief, anxiety, dementia and other issues.

“The goal is to stabilize an individual, to review what is happening to see what is causing behavioral changes,” LaFleur said. After that, the hope is to return patients to their homes or other previous living situation or find a more appropriate home setting if necessary.

St. Veronica’s opening is part of an expansion in senior health care that’s taken place here recently and seems likely to continue given the increasing number of people living longer. Those developments include:

• Corterra of Wichita, a 24-room senior behavioral hospital that opened last month at K-96 and Ridge Road in northwest Wichita.

• ChenMed Dedicated Senior Medical Center which opened in April at 13th and Grove to primarily serve people 65 and older who have certain Medicare Advantage plans.

• Ascension Via Christi’s decision to have three of its emergency rooms — at St. Teresa in northwest Wichita, St. Francis in central Wichita and its emergency clinic in Wellington — accredited as geriatric emergency departments over the past several years.

“I think there’s just a lot of momentum knowing that the aging population is growing, with the boomer population growing leaps and bounds in the next few years,” LaFleur said.  “People are gearing up for how to best serve that population.”

ChenMed has announced plans for two more clinics in Wichita, and Eric Hatten, CEO of Corterra, envisions similar facilities “up and down (Interstate) 35.”

Hatten, who previously worked for Via Christ Villages senior living communities, said he saw the same type of issues with acute geriatric psychiatry care as LaFleur.

“These people are sitting in emergency rooms for days on end,” he said. “What’s that experience like?”

According to the Pan American Health Organization, at least one in four older adults experiences some mental disorder, such as depression, anxiety, or dementia. Due to population aging, the number of seniors with mental disorders is expected to double by 2030. Depression is the most common mental health problem in older people.

Both LaFleur and Hatten said they’ve been inundated with inquiries in the months leading up to their opening, indicating the facilities are likely to remain busy. “We’re excited about having another partner in the market because the need is so great,” Hatten said of St. Veronica. He expects Corterra to serve 400 to 500 patients a year.

Asked what distinguishes a senior behavioral hospital from one serving the general population, LaFleur said the space is designed for older patients and the medical staff are specifically trained in geriatric medicine. St. Veronica was created from an existing space on the campus that had been used for long-term care. LaFleur said it’s part of Catholic Care’s long-term plan to replace semi-private rooms with private rooms and showers.

“That’s to enhance the human dignity of life and quality of life as they’re aging.” 

The hospital will serve Catholic Care residents as well as those of other senior communities. LaFleur said she hopes that knowledge gained through St. Veronica can be used in the center’s memory care, assisted living and long-term care settings.

ChenMed is a private Florida-based company with about 125 clinics in 15 states and is known for locating centers in underserved neighborhoods. It previously plans for additional clinics in the Parklane Shopping Center at Lincoln and Oliver and New Leaf Plaza at 21st and Amidon.

To qualify for the geriatric ER accreditation, Ascension Via Christi bought walkers, canes and wheelchairs specifically for its emergency rooms, but most efforts were focused on staff training and the implementation of more than two dozen “best practices” for senior care, according to a news release. Because many older patients come in with injuries from falls, the ER staff is trained to look for what can be done to keep them safe once they leave the hospital. Ascension now also has a geriatric team and protocols in place at its Level 1 Trauma Center, located at St. Francis.