Palo Alto University addresses the mental health needs of senior living communities while providing training opportunities for aspiring clinicians

Palo Alto, CA – In response to the impact COVID-19 is having on the mental health of people in aging communities, a team of psychologists and consultants from Palo Alto University (PAU) has developed a tele-mental health outreach program that will long-term care facilities to meet the needs of senior living communities while providing a unique training opportunity for aspiring clinicians.

In an article published this month (July 2022) in Gerontology & Geriatrics Education, the PAU team (Donna S. Sheperis, PhD, Rowena Gomez, PhD, Cristen Wathen, PhD, Megan Frank, and Lisa M. Brown, PhD) a partnership model between long-term care assisted living organizations and the clinical training program at the University of Palo Alto to meet the community and educational needs of older residents.

“While the pandemic has certainly created the challenge, it has also provided an opportunity to engage in virtual and telemedicine models to reach a community that is not typically served,” says lead author Donna Sheperis, consulting professor and board-certified telepsychiatry professional at University of Palo Alto.

“The feelings of isolation and loneliness associated with depression and cognitive decline in aging adults meant this demographic was struggling more than others,” added Dr. added Sheperis. “The ability to meet a community need while educating mental health clinicians is exciting.”

The article describes how Palo Alto University, a designated age-friendly university, has established partnerships with local assisted living centers and highlights the challenges in implementing psychoeducation programs, problems in delivering teletherapy, and the benefits that can be shared by all parties involved in the partnership. The team has developed the following list of key considerations that may be helpful for programs looking to implement a telepsychiatric counseling and psychoeducational program:

  • Consider the existing level of care in the community. Mental health needs differ across care levels (e.g., loneliness is more likely to be seen with independent living than at more advanced care levels).
  • Do you have adequate technical support. Technological challenges can stand in the way of opportunities to provide therapy services.
  • Involve student clinicians in training for the care of older adults and in the delivery of elemental health.
  • Don’t underestimate the time it takes to work with program administrators. We found that customers didn’t always get services if management wasn’t on board.
  • Be flexible with the programming you offer based on the community. This is another good time to consult with management, as the administrator’s expectations may not match what you determine in the needs assessment.
  • Be flexible with offers for different agencies. We have found that the needs of residents vary depending on the facility.
  • Involve the municipal residents’ council, if the municipality has one, in the communication process. Keep in mind that their expectations may or may not reflect the wider community and may or may not include all voices.
  • Address the need for stigma. Older people identify mental health problems due to stigma (World Health Organization, 2020).
  • Be aware of language needs and be prepared to provide written materials and services in languages ​​other than English.


COVID-19 has affected most populations worldwide, but it has affected some people more negatively than others. In particular, older adults are at greater risk of adverse physical health effects, including higher mortality rates, than younger age groups (World Health Organization, 2021). This is partly due to an age-related decrease in immunity and an increase in underlying diseases (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020; Jordan, Adab, & Cheng, 2020; Onder, Rezza, & Brusaferro, 2020). Because older adults are advised to isolate themselves more than other age groups because of these physical risks, they are also at increased risk for a higher rate and level of emotional and psychological distress. These adverse psychological consequences are greater in older adults than younger adults, including those who have recovered from COVID-19 (Cai et al., 2020). Some of these psychological consequences are isolation and loneliness.

About the University of Palo Alto

Palo Alto University (PAU), a private, nonprofit university located in the heart of Northern California’s Silicon Valley, is dedicated to addressing pressing and emerging problems in the fields of psychology and counseling that meet the needs of today’s diverse society. PAU offers undergraduate and graduate programs led by faculty that make significant contributions in their fields. Online, hybrid and residential program options are available. PAU was founded in 1975 as the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology and re-established as Palo Alto University in August 2009. PAU is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). PAU’s doctoral programs are accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA) and its master’s programs in counseling programs are accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

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