dr Rhonda Randall
from dr Rhonda Randall
We’re all wired for emotional connections and that doesn’t stop when we retire. In my experience as a geriatrician, seniors who have family or a strong support network by their side are more likely to live longer in their homes, receive the care they need, and have better health outcomes. Unfortunately, seniors who are more isolated and have less social support experience more challenges and often do not receive essential care.
Through my practice I have learned that the path to better health for our seniors does not always lead 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 because of COVID-19. The lack of community support during the pandemic has exacerbated the impact of social isolation and mental health issues, which affect the quality of life and sense of purpose and connection as our seniors age.
The United Health Foundation’s 10th annual America’s Health Rankings Senior Report—which highlights a 10-year analysis of improvements, challenges, and disparities in health and well-being across all 50 states—reflects this reality for older adults in America , who felt the effects of the pandemic in many ways.
Unfortunately, the Senior Report revealed a decade of increasing mental and behavioral health problems among older adults. In the last 10 years, nationwide, we’ve seen a 13 percent increase in the suicide rate, a 9 percent increase in the prevalence of depression, and an 8 percent increase in the prevalence of common mental distress among adults age 65 and older. And drug-related deaths increased by 147% among seniors aged 65 to 74.
Behavioral health measures in Colorado were the most worrisome in this year’s report, with the state ranked 43rd for suicide among those over 65. Additionally, Colorado ranked 37th for binge drinking.
The correlation between connection, community, and independent living for seniors is so important to achieve healthy outcomes and a higher quality of life, including these behavioral health interventions. But if someone does not have a relationship or family of choice, it is up to society to meet that need.
Colorado ranks 5th overall healthiest state in this year’s Senior Report, which is strong. If the state wants to continue investing 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 family networks of their own.
A 2013 study published in Health Services Research found that an increase in home and community-based services for older adults, such as g., home-delivered meals, community meals, or community centers, has been associated with a decrease in the rate of low-care residents in nursing homes. And data from the 2018 Older Americans Act Report to Congress also suggests that community support services are effective — 65% of community meal customers and 92% of home-delivery customers said these services helped them have to continue to live independently at home. Increasing the number of licensed home care workers per capita is another area of opportunity.
The AARP Foundation offers a program, Connect2Affect, to help 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, focus critical attention on the problem, 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 their independence and hopefully improve behavioral health interventions.
We need to help the seniors in our lives reconnect with their communities and activities that they have enjoyed in the past but have not yet returned to regularly. And we must strengthen programs that provide 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 Chief Medical Officer of UnitedHealthcare Employers & Individual, a division of the nation’s largest healthcare company, UnitedHealth Group. dr Randall is a board-certified geriatrician specializing in hospice and palliative care and a board-certified general practitioner. She completed her internship, residency, chief residency and fellowship at Florida Hospital in Orlando.
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