Although life expectancy decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, the general trendline remains the same. People are living longer than ever.
As they do, they experience more health issues — and more of them overall — than their parents and grandparents did. Today’s seniors have more complex healthcare needs than any generation before them.
Fortunately, they have access to higher-quality healthcare and better healthcare technology than those who came before. But that access isn’t broadly shared, nor does it always produce the outcomes it should. There’s much more that we can do to address seniors’ healthcare needs today, tomorrow, and beyond.
Improve Access to Mental Healthcare in Smaller Communities
Many rural areas and smaller cities lack adequate access to quality mental healthcare. These coverage gaps affect those seeking inpatient and outpatient services alike. For the former, that can mean relocating to residential facilities hours from home and compelling loved ones to spend hours on the road to visit. For the latter, it can mean spending a night in a hotel — at considerable expense — before or after a routine office visit.
Providers like Oceans Healthcare are working hard to address mental healthcare shortages outside of major metropolitan areas. There’s more work to be done, especially in regions of the United States not served by Oceans and its peers.
Increase Coverage for Telehealth Services
Telehealth is one partial solution to the issue of inadequate behavioral healthcare in rural areas. Secure, real-time communications technology greatly reduces the burden of care-seeking for people who need support but can’t access it in-person in their communities.
Telehealth’s value extends well beyond the mental healthcare space as well. During the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth was a lifeline for patients who couldn’t travel long distances to specialty clinics or receive in-room care from local specialists due to pandemic protocols.
Control the Cost of Essential Medications
Price increases for many prescription medications continue to outpace inflation, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. These increases put disproportionate financial and emotional strain on seniors living on fixed incomes. And without concerted action by policymakers, the problem is likely to get worse.
Federal lawmakers have tried for years to reduce the cost of prescription drugs. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done; the problem is more complex than it appears and addressing the needs of one constituency (seniors) means ignoring the needs of another (pharmaceutical firms that employ hundreds of thousands of Americans).
Widen the Pipeline of Providers Specializing in Elder Care
Basic arithmetic tells us that as more Americans live longer, they’re going to need more medical care. But the pipeline of medical providers specializing in elder care hasn’t kept up with this looming increase in demand. Over time, that’s likely to result in worse healthcare outcomes for vulnerable seniors, especially residents of long-term care facilities and skilled nursing facilities and high-need members of the general public.
Healthcare industry stakeholders can address this issue by encouraging more aspiring practitioners — doctors, nurses, medical assistants — to specialize in elder care. An expansion of nursing and midlevel degree programs in these fields wouldn’t hurt either.
Improve Early Detection for Cancer and Other Serious Illnesses
Early detection quite literally saves lives. Many straightforward interventions, like ensuring patients follow recommended screening schedules for breast, lung, and colorectal cancers, can improve patients’ quality of life (and life expectancy) while reducing demand on inpatient and specialty services. These effects show up in public health trendlines, be they measures of life expectancy or cost of care per patient.
Provide More Support to Older Americans With Dementia and Memory Loss (And Their Families)
The risk of memory issues increases with age. This means that as America’s population ages, more Americans will live for longer with age-related memory loss and dementia. These individuals — and their families — need extensive medical and nonmedical support both inside and outside clinical memory care settings.
Meeting the Future’s Healthcare Challenges, One Patient at a Time
Older adults have always had complex healthcare needs. But with the median senior living longer than ever, meeting the healthcare challenges of the future won’t be easy.
The good news is that we know what needs to be done. We understand the healthcare needs of the senior community and we have the tools to address them. What’s missing is the workforce capacity and political will to ensure that older Americans — and their loved ones — have everything they need.
It’s time to dispense with the excuses and roll up our sleeves. Our country’s elders deserve better.
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