Quality of life, mental health among issues facing senior health care #ahcj13

Sharon A. Levine, M.D., from the Boston Medical Center Geriatrics Section and a professor of medicine at Boston University, warned attendees of Health Journalism 2013 of the coming “tsunami” of aging baby boomers and older seniors who are living longer (over 19 million people over the age of 85 expected by 2050), stressing the need for an increased emphasis on senior care.  

Levine said there is an extreme shortage of physicians specializing in geriatric care but described it as a “fabulous” job.  She described working within a “village” of providers and caregivers focused on the physical and mental health needs of the aging population. Team goals include not only promoting health, but also preserving independence. Quality of life is a major issue for seniors who may suffer with chronic disease and disability for decades.

“How are you living on a daily basis?” is part of the assessment for physicians and caregivers when evaluating seniors. Questions include:

  • “How often do you leave your house?”
  • “Are you able to shower or bathe on a regular basis?”
  • “Are you able to move around your house easily?”
  • “Do you have enough food and can you prepare a meal?”

Panel moderator Eileen Beal asked the panelists, “What is the one story you would most like to see addressed by the media?”

Levine’s answer was, “How do we help caregivers navigate the complex world of comprehensive senior care?”

While the health care focus for seniors most often involves their physical health, Bert Rahl, director of Mental Health for Eldercare Services Institute LLC, says evaluating and treating the mental health issues of seniors is equally important.  Seniors suffering from mental illnesses show a decrease of 20 years from their lifespan.

Rahl says that while some seniors suffer from lifelong conditions, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, it is not uncommon for mental illness to develop after age 60.  These late-onset illnesses may include delusional disorders, psychosis, or depression. He stated studies indicate after the age of 65, 20 percent of people will get a mental illness.

Adding to the problem, according to Rahl, there are very few geriatric mental health professionals. He would like to see the media address the need for funding of senior mental health services.

Boston University’s Terry Ellis, director of the Center for Neurorehabilitation, discussed the need for a change in the way we look at victims of neurological events and illnesses. Ellis said studies show “the brain is modifiable” and described the progress that can be made with stroke victims months, or even years, after traditional therapy (usually only a few months) has ended.

This is particularly important for seniors who often become sedentary after a stroke resulting in their quality of life deteriorating greatly. Ellis encourages continual therapy to improve motor skills, and this is the area she would like to see covered more by the media.

Susan Reinhard, from the AARP Public Policy Institute, wrapped up the session with a presentation on caregiving that generated a lot of response from the audience – just about everyone in the room raised their hands when asked if they are responsible for some form of caregiving for an older adult.

Reinhard addressed the issues faced by most caregivers and stated the quality of life becomes an issue not just for the senior, but also for the caregiver.  Stating that “families are deeply worried” about the issue, she reiterated what the other panelists said about the lack of training and support for caregivers.

“Even in the area of dispensing medications,” she stated, “this can be hard for a caregiver because many seniors are on five to nine medications a day!” Reinhard would like to see care giver issued addressed more by the press, saying, “There needs to be a social movement for caregivers!”

There were a couple of great resources handed out during the workshop:

Older Americans 2012: Key Indicators of Well-Being; A report by the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, this publication is chock-full of data and statistics on older Americans, covering everything from demographics, health care, housing, and habits.

Home Alone: Family Caregivers Providing Complex Chronic Care, by Susan Reinhard,R.N., Ph.D., AARP Public Policy Institute; Carol Levine, M.A., United Health Fund; Sarah Samis, MPA United Health Fund.

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