COVID-19 brings change to behavioral health for older adults

COVID-19 brings change to behavioral health for older adults

By Paula Hartman-Stein, Ph.D.
July 28, 2020 - Last updated: July 27, 2020

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says eight out of 10 U.S. deaths from the novel coronavirus have been in adults age 65 and older.

Nursing homes and assisted living facilities have become hotspots for the virus, accounting for 42 percent of COVID-19 deaths, according to the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunities (FREOPP). As a result, public health officials have recommended older adults stay at home as much as possible during the pandemic.

In response, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) began easing barriers to virtual medical care in early March, allowing Medicare to temporarily reimburse telehealth appointments at the same rate as in-office visits, relaxing HIPAA privacy law requirements and allowing psychological services to be reimbursed for audio-only visits. Some states granted waivers so providers licensed in one state could provide services to patients in another.

Information about states’ requirements for temporary practice laws is on the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards (ASPPB) website.

Fear of contracting the virus has warmed older adults to telehealth. Almost 1.3 million members received medical services through telehealth in the week ending April 18, compared to 11,000 in the week ending March 7, recent Medicare claims data shows — a whopping increase of about 12,000 percent in just a month and a half.

Psychologists treating patients in nursing homes have had to adapt.

“I’m doing telehealth using the platform with many clients in long-term care facilities, but some do not want to do any telehealth and some nursing homes prefer I don’t come in, so I just check in via phone and ensure they’re ok,” said psychologist Mary Lewis, Ph.D., of Columbus, Ohio. “I have done phone therapy when the technology failed. I had to resort to FaceTime when Internet connections failed.” In one facility she plans to do phone therapy looking at the patient through the window.

According to Lisa Lind, Ph.D., chief of quality assurance for Deer Oaks, a behavioral healthcare group with over 400 clinicians across 29 states, some facilities are allowing in-person services, with varying restrictions. Most require clinicians to go through a screening process that involves answering questions about symptoms and having their temperature taken. Wearing a mask is mandatory and some facilities require gowns, gloves, shoe coverings, and face shields.

Acquiring personal protective equipment (PPE) in a timely fashion, particularly at the onset of the pandemic, and its cost, have kept some clinicians from working in facilities that require PPE but don’t provide it to consultants.

Lind said telehealth waivers have been beneficial in potentially opening up opportunities to continue psychological services, but facilities have encountered difficulties providing facilitators to assist with telehealth delivery even though facilities can bill CMS an originating facility fee to coordinate the session.

“When eight to 10 patients would normally be seen in a usual workday prior to COVID-19, now maybe three to four patients are seen on average due to facilitator schedule limitations,” Lind said. “The allowance for audio-only telehealth services by CMS increased the ability to reach patients who have access to a telephone without relying on facility staff to assist, although this is limited to those residents who have access to a telephone and providers having access to their phone number.”

Many psychologists agree that everyone is not an ideal candidate for telehealth, including those with hearing deficits and certain levels of cognitive impairment. Some individuals with mild-to-moderate levels of dementia can participate in, and benefit from, telehealth services. But in-person psychological services appear preferable for those with dementia with behavioral issues, individuals with psychotic symptoms, and those with hearing/vision/motor impairment.

Virtual outpatient groups extend access

John Merladet, Ph.D. a psychologist in the Homebase Primary Care Program at the Orlando Florida Veteran’s Administration hospital, recently began a group for Vietnam vets with a focus on late-life onset of post-traumatic stress.

Robert Matthew Wachen, Ph.D. a psychologist at the Bedford VA hospital in Bedford, Mass., said that after the COVID crisis hit he transitioned a caregiver-support group first to telephone and then to video, with weekly meetings of the four-to eight-person group.

“The covid crisis has nudged us into territory that would have been wise to have been in all along,” he said. “We plan to continue to provide the virtual service to those who cannot come to us.”
One group member and that person’s spouse both contracted COVID-19. The spouse died of the virus and the caregiver recovered and continued to attend the group.

“I very strongly suspect the caregiver would have stopped attending in person during the spouse’s final weeks and after the death. Instead, not only the caregiver but the group at large benefitted to process this chapter of transitioning out of caregiving after many years. It’s been a deeply moving and meaningful experience for all involved,” said Wachen.

According to Rachael Falk, PsyD, the Center for Memory Health at Hebrew SeniorLife in Boston provides a virtual therapy group for caregivers that is billed to Medicare and other third party payers.

Cathee Stegall, community services director for the nonprofit Memory Matters in Hilton Head Island, S. C., that offers adult day services, early memory loss clubs and caregiver support, began to offer virtual programs to replace in-person programs after its doors closed in mid-March. Although the facility plans to re-open in July, Stegall anticipates some families may not send loved ones, preferring the online programs.

Using a Zoom platform Stegall and a co-facilitator conduct three support groups that have as many as 20 people in the virtual meeting at a time. She also conducts telehealth programs for the early memory loss (EML) club that include suggested cognitive stimulation activities delivered to the EML students’ homes via email.

Stegall also helped develop a program through Zoom for participants with mild to moderate dementia who live at home. Family members set up the Zoom call and watch loved ones participate in activities involving music, art, physical exercise, meditation and short stories. She said one unexpected benefit is that family members can see what their loved ones can do and the memories they share with the group.

Adaptations for neuropsychological evaluations

Psychologist Sheri Gibson, Ph.D., of Colorado Springs, has opted to not use telehealth when conducting capacity assessments for older adults.

“My decision is based on the nature of those assessments because I draw important conclusions and offer expert opinions involving the possibility of removing a person’s rights to make decisions around their health care, finances, or living situation,” she said. “And in most cases, I will be expected to testify in court on my findings. In consulting with my neuropsychology colleagues on this dilemma, they have agreed that capacity evaluations should be conducted in person if possible.”

During the height of the quarantine mandate she put evaluations on hold, but began conducting them in May in her office and a hospital setting. In her private practice office she has clients complete a COVID-19 screening questionnaire and takes their temperature. She and the client wear masks, except in extraordinary cases.

Gibson sanitizes her office and testing space, opening the windows to allow ventilation, and offering hand sanitizer in both the lobby and her office.

Future of telehealth for Medicare patients

CMS Administrator Seema Verma told reporters on June 2nd her department is evaluating telehealth waivers to determine if they should be extended and is creating additional rules around the issue. APA is advocating that telehealth continue to be reimbursed for 12 months after the pandemic ends.

Healthcare analysts say virtual care is likely to remain popular for services such as chronic disease management, behavioral healthcare and evaluation visits that can easily be conducted through a telehealth modality, especially if CMS retains telehealth payment parity for Medicare’s 44 million beneficiaries.

Share Button

Paula Hartman-Stein, Ph.D. is an independent consultant in Asheville, N.C., and editor of Enhancing Cognitive Fitness in Adults: A guide to the use and development of community-based programs. Since the pandemic she offers virtual meditation and expressive writing programs. Her websites are and

Related Articles