Making Sure Our Longer Lives Are Healthy Ones

Last Updated January 20, 2021

The following guest post by Partners in Care Foundation CEO, June Simmons, was published on February 6, 2017 by Next Avenue as part of their series Transforming Life As We Age Special Report. © Twin Cities Public Television – 2017. All rights reserved.

When I was born, a person could reasonably assume a life expectancy of somewhere around 65 years, just two years more than the current average age of retirement. Speed forward to 2016, and life expectancy is 78.8 years, nearly a decade and a half longer.

Our longer lives – a testament to the spectacular advances in public health, nutrition and medicine over the last century – are something we should be able to cherish and celebrate. Yet, too often, our longer lives are blighted by financial and nutritional insecurity, ill-health, and loss of independence. Indeed, it was witnessing this frustrating reality, as a social worker and as a hospital and home health administrator, which prompted the creation of Partners in Care Foundation in 1997.

Another frustrating reality, one that Next Avenue’s 2016 Influencer of the Year Ashton Applewhite so ably discusses in her book, is a tendency in the US to see aging as something that, with enough potions, lotions or medical intervention, can be ‘fixed’. Of course, it can’t. Alongside death and taxes, aging is, perhaps, the only other guarantee in life.

More Years a Boon or a Burden?

There are currently 46 million people aged 65+, projected to rise to over 98 million by 2060. 70% of people turning age 65 will likely need some form of long-term care during their lives. This bonus of time must be maximized by striving to optimize health over the years.

Let the enormity of those numbers sink in for a moment. There are now more Americans age 65 and older than at any other time in U.S. history. At this new epoch, what must we do as a society, and as individuals, to ensure that our longer lives are a boon to our existence, not a burden?

Many governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations, including Partners in Care, are actively seeking answers to this question and, I’m happy to say, coming up with some pretty compelling answers.

New Ideas in Aging and Care

Here are just three of the innovations emerging from the imperative presented by the Triple Aim (patient satisfaction, better health of populations and lower per capita cost of health care), a model by the nonprofit Institute for Healthcare Improvement. These have made demonstrable improvements to the way we think about the process of aging and care for our older adult population:

1. Person-centered care. Bruce Chernof, CEO of The Scan Foundation, and a fellow Influencer in Aging, wrote recently in this publication about the criticality of person-centered care that “values individuals’ quality of life outcomes, not just the technical quality of medicine.” The passing of the Affordable Care Act ushered in new opportunities to replace fee-for-service models with bundled payments that have encouraged better coordinated care, helped cut down on unwarranted and invasive tests and procedures, and have been demonstrated to significantly improve patient health outcomes and experience.

2. Post-acute care. This person-centered shift has also afforded far greater efficiencies and effectiveness in providing post-acute care. Care Transitions programs – where health coaches from community-based organizations like our own, work with high-risk patients recently discharged from the hospital to build health self-management skills, review medication use, and identify the red flags of a worsening condition – have dramatically reduced 30-day hospital readmissions, ER visits and the associated distress for patients and their families.

3. Health self-management programs. Roughly 91% of older adults have a least one chronic condition and 73% have at least two. Empowering these people with the skills to prevent them, to stabilize and to actually improve their health, is emerging as one of the most powerful strategies for and improving quality of life and thus controlling health care expenditures.

Preserving Our Progress

We at Partners in Care hope that in its rush to repeal The Affordable Care Act, the new administration is not tempted to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

So much progress has been made in developing programs that afford older adults the opportunity to age well, thus increasing their independence and dignity. We have unprecedented opportunities to redefine the aging experience – through prevention, through more coordinated, person-centered care that respects the uniqueness of aging, and through personal empowerment to take greater responsibility for our own health.

Now is the time to respect, support and celebrate our extended lifespans. If care delivery systems, community organizations and individuals work together, we can reshape the journey of aging so it better serves us all.

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