We are wired for emotional connection and that doesn’t stop when we retire. In my experience as a geriatrician, seniors who have a family or strong support network by their side are more likely to stay in their homes longer, receive the care they need, and have better health outcomes. Unfortunately, older adults who are more isolated with less of a social support system face more challenges and often do not receive important care.
Through my practice, I have learned that the path to better health for our seniors isn’t always through the doctor’s office. When seniors are part of an active community, their health outcomes improve. But in many cases, these communities have been less active due to COVID-19. Lack of community support during the pandemic has exacerbated the impact of social isolation and mental health challenges, which impact our seniors’ quality of life and sense of purpose and age connection.
The United Health Foundation’s 10th annual “America’s Health Rankings Senior Report,” which highlights a decade-long analysis of health and wellness improvements, challenges and disparities across 50 states, reflects this reality for seniors in America who have felt the impact of the pandemic in many ways.
Unfortunately, the Senior Report revealed a decade of worsening mental and behavioral health challenges among the elderly. Over the past 10 years, nationwide, we have seen a 13% increase in the suicide rate, a 9% increase in depression, and an 8% increase in the prevalence of frequent mental distress among adults aged 12 and over. 65 years old. And drug-related deaths have increased by 147% among the elderly, aged 65 to 74.
Behavioral health measures in Colorado were the most troubling in this year’s report, with the state ranked 43rd for suicide among those aged 65 and over. Additionally, Colorado was ranked 37th for excessive alcohol consumption.
The correlation between connection, community, and independent living for seniors is so important to achieving healthy outcomes and a better quality of life, including those behavioral health measures. But when someone doesn’t have a relationship or chosen family, it’s up to society to fulfill that need. Colorado ranked the 5th healthiest state overall in this year’s Senior Report, which is very strong.
If the state is looking to continue investing in the health of its seniors, there is compelling reason to support connected and community-focused programs, especially for seniors who don’t have their own built-in family network.
A study published in Health Services Research in 2013 found that the increase in home and community services for the elderly, such as home delivery meals, aggregation meals, or community centers, were associated with a decrease in the rate of living conditions of poor care in nursing homes. And even data from the 2018 Older Americans Act Report to Congress suggested that community support services are effective: 65 percent of assembled meal customers and 92 percent of home-delivered meal customers reported that these services they helped them to continue living independently at home. Increasing the per capita number of licensed home health workers is another area of opportunity.
The AARP Foundation offers a program, Connect2Affect, which helps seniors who are experiencing isolation or loneliness. This program offers solutions in partnership 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 crucial attention to the problem and catalyze action to end social isolation among the elderly.
It is clear that programs that support behavioral health and social services for the elderly can help them maintain independence and hopefully improve behavioral health measures.
We need to help the elderly in our lives reconnect with their communities and activities that they 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.
Rhonda L. Randall, DO, is the chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare Employer & Individual, a business segment of UnitedHealth Group.
Rhonda L. Randall, DO, is the chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare Employer & Individual, a business segment of the nation’s largest healthcare company, UnitedHealth Group.