Increased social and community connections are important to the health of older Colorado

Dr. Rhonda Randall

By Dr. Rhonda Randall

We are all wired for emotional connection and that doesn’t stop when we retire. In my experience as a geriatrician, older people who have a family or strong support network by their side are more likely to stay in their homes longer, get the care they need, and have better health outcomes. Unfortunately, older people who are more isolated with less of a social support system experience more challenges and often do not receive significant care.

Through my practice, I’ve learned that the path to better health for our seniors doesn’t always go through the doctor’s office. When older people are part of an active community, their health outcomes improve. But in many cases, these communities have been less active due to COVID-19. The lack of community support during the pandemic has exacerbated the impact of social isolation and mental health issues, affecting quality of life and sense of purpose and connection as our older adults age.

The United Health Foundation Top 10the Annual United States Health Ranking Top Report” – which highlights a 10-year analysis of improvements, challenges, and disparities in health and wellness across all 50 states – reflects this reality for older Americans who have felt the impact of the pandemic in many ways.

Unfortunately, the senior report revealed a decade of worsening mental and behavioral health problems among older adults. Over the last 10 years, nationally, we saw a 13% increase in the suicide rate, a 9% increase in the prevalence of depression, and an 8% increase in the prevalence of common mental distress among adults age 65 or more. And drug deaths increased 147% among older people, ages 65 to 74.

Behavioral health measures in Colorado were the most concerning in this year’s report, with the state ranking 43rd for suicide among those 65 and older. Additionally, Colorado ranked 37th in binge drinking.

The correlation between connection, community, and independent living for older people is very important for healthy outcomes and better quality of life, including behavioral health measures. But when someone doesn’t have a relational or chosen family, it’s up to society to fill that need.

Colorado ranked fifth for healthiest state overall in this year’s survey. senior report, which is very strong. If the state looks to continue to invest in the health of its seniors, there is a strong case for supporting programs that focus on connection and community, especially for seniors who do not have an integrated family network of their own.

A study published in Health Services Research in 2013 found that increases in home- and community-based services for older adults, such as home-delivered meals, congregate meals, or community centers, were associated with a decline in the rate of resident low care in nursing homes. And data from the 2018 Older Americans Act Report to Congress also suggested that community support services are effective: 65% of congregate meal clients and 92% of meal delivery clients reported that these services they helped them continue to live independently at home. Increasing the number of licensed home health care workers per capita is another area of ​​opportunity.

The AARP Foundation offers a program, Connect2Affect, that helps seniors who are experiencing isolation or loneliness. This program offers solutions in collaboration with the Gerontological Society of America, Give an Hour, USAging and UnitedHealth Group. Connect2Affect uses research to create a deeper understanding of loneliness and isolation, draw attention to the issue, and catalyze action to end social isolation among older adults.

It is clear that programs that support behavioral health and social services for older adults can help them maintain independence and hopefully improve behavioral health measures.

We need to help the older people in our lives reconnect with their communities and activities that they have enjoyed in the past but have not yet returned to on a regular basis. And we need to strengthen programs that offer evidence-based community support. Armed with this data, I hope we can work together to address emerging health disparities among older Americans so they can remain independent, in their homes, and connected to their communities.

Rhonda L. Randall, DO, is the Chief Medical Officer of UnitedHealthcare Employer & Individual, a business segment of the nation’s largest health care company, UnitedHealth Group. Dr. Randall is a fellowship-trained geriatrician with a focus on hospice and palliative medicine, and is board certified in family medicine. She completed her internship, residency, chief residency, and fellowship at Florida Hospital in Orlando.

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