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Hillside Hospital gives seniors hope battling depression

Bernard Rosen struggled with depression for more than 50 years, but it was a unique program at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks that finally helped him to get his illness under control.

"I have probably been suffering since the day I turned 18," the 82-year-old retired salesman said. "Nothing worked, but I was functioning. I was running on two cylinders."

Over the years, Rosen's treatments included countless medications and even a stint of electrical shock therapy, he said.

In 1995 he found Hillside's geriatric partial hospital, a five-day-a-week treatment program for mental health patients who are not seriously ill enough to warrant full-time inpatient therapy, but not yet ready to manage their own care on an outpatient basis.

"We can help people who just came out of the hospital," Leah Siskin, one of the program's psychologists and its admissions coordinator, explained. "We can also help those we want to prevent from going in to the hospital, and keep them living in their own homes."

The 11-year-old geriatric partial hospital treats about 20 patients. Eighty percent of the program's costs are covered by Medicare, and the hospital will negotiate the remaining fees with patients, Siskin said.

The regimen's structure, its focus on seniors only and its reliance on group therapy were among the factors Rosen credits for his marked improvement.

"You are removed from your environment," the Forest Hills resident said, "from looking at the four walls in your house, from bothering your family."

Patients spend every day at the facility, located off 263rd Street adjacent to the campus of Long Island Jewish Medical Center, from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. A staff of 14 orchestrates a structured day in which one-on-one sessions with social workers and psychologists are balanced with group sessions that include topics like self-esteem training and medication management.

The staff includes a geriatric psychiatrist, Eileen Rosendahl, who is also the program's medical director, two geriatric psychologists, two social workers, an occupational therapist, a psychiatric nurse and several interns and fellows.

Meeting every day is important, Rosen said, because it allows Rosendahl to fine-tune patients' medications.

"Certain medications might not work," he said. "They have to get the combination just right. If you don't feel right, you let them know the next day. They change it."

Another key feature of the partial hospital - and the one that makes it unique in Queens, according to Siskin - is its focus on patients 65 and over.

She said that among the advantages to treating seniors together rather than in a group of varying ages are the common experiences the group can draw on. While those common experiences make social interaction and group therapy easier, they are not always positive in and of themselves, she added.

"We're dealing with a group of people where mental health needs are stigmatized," she said, "people who never got attention, people with lifelong problems who didn't have a language for it."

The seniors-only focus makes for homogeneous group sessions, but there is also variety in that patients at various stages of the treatment program participate together. In this way, said Siskin, those just starting out can see the positive results in those who are near completion. It also facilitates an informal mentoring process, where those older patients provide guidance to the newer ones.

When patients are ready to leave the program, on average after 22 1/2 days, Siskin said, the partial hospital makes sure that a social worker or case manager guides their transition back to everyday life.

"They don't leave you out in the cold," Rosen said.

Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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