Riveredge Hospital, the largest psychiatric hospital in the state, has expanded the care it provides its elderly population with the creation of a geriatric unit for residents 65 and older.

The unit opened at a cost of $150,000 about a year ago, and the hospital celebrated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, earlier this month.

The creation of the geriatric unit reflects an effort by hospital officials to expand the range of patients it serves. The unit was created when Riveredge – which treats children (age 4 and up), adults and the elderly – began to see increased demand by older patients.

“We decided to dedicate a specific unit to address the unique needs of the older adult patient population,” said Carrie Carlock, the hospital’s CEO, during an interview in her office at Riveredge, 8311 Roosevelt Rd.

The unit also has “a specific treatment team that is trained to meet their needs,” she said. “What a 50-year-old schizophrenic might need [is different from] a 13-year-old adolescent girl who’s struggling with not being with her family.”

Prior to the creation of the geriatric unit, the elderly population was housed in the general adult section of the hospital, according to Ginny Trainor, business director for Riveredge. Of the hospital’s current 115 patients, 10 are in the geriatric unit, said Carlock. 

Patients in the unit receive traditional and individual therapies. They are also treated by an “expressive therapy department,” Carlock said. The care is delivered by doctors, nurses, staff and other specialists. Patients participate in dance, art, drama, and occupational and animal therapies. With animal therapy, patients get the chance to interact with dogs, for instance. The dogs are handled by certified animal therapists.

Roxanne Dwyer is a certified animal therapist and a member of Rainbow Animal Assisted Therapy, an organization that has partnered with Riveredge to provide therapy throughout the hospital. She described it as having a “comforting effect,” that “lubricates the social dynamic.”

“We introduce the dogs. We give everyone an opportunity to pet the dog, and particularly with geriatric patients, it elicits memories about pets,” she said. “[Patients] look outsides themselves instead of being focused on any pain or discomfort.”

The social aspect comes into play when the patients are engaged by the animals, she said. “Otherwise, everyone is sort of sitting there in their own isolated spot.”

“We believe in a holistic approach,” said Carlock, in reference to the therapies offered. “We’re treating the whole person.”

The specialized unit also has a recreational room, a giant calendar on the wall in the main corridor that charts the day’s activities, and, in the event that patients don’t recall which room they’re in (some have memory loss), there are whiteboards outside their doors bearing their names. Color-coded walls are used to aid their memories, Trainor said.

“If they don’t remember which room they’re in, they might say, ‘I’m in the one with the purple wall,'” said Trainor, pointing to a lavender wall in a patient’s room. 

She and Carlock said the hospital’s ultimate goal is to return patients to the community, if possible. 

“Our responsibility is to make sure these patients can keep themselves safe. … We have to operate with a safe milieu but respect patients’ trauma history,” Carlock said. This is part of the hospital’s treatment philosophy, which Carlock called “trauma-informed care.”

“You greet every patient, consumer, the community, as if there could be a trauma history,” said Carlock, adding, “you’re sensitive not only to their presenting problems but to the context of their past.”

This is part of the “cultural transformation” that occurred when Carlock became CEO in 2008, bringing with her a new leadership team. “Most of the senior management at Riveredge is new within the last few years. These dedicated professionals joined the organization in support of our mission to provide superior care for our patients.”

“We want to let them know … we’re here,” Carlock said. “We’re a community-based hospital, so if someone walks through the door in crisis, we’re going to take care of that patient,” she said.