The wisdom I gain from caring for seniors is what has always driven my passion for promoting the health of older adults. When I first started working as a nursing assistant in 1991, it was easy to see the gaps in health services for older adults. Over 30 years later, these challenges persist — and have only gotten worse.
Seniors and their caregivers are the salt of the earth; they work incredibly hard, yet the challenges they face are underappreciated by so many — a reality underscored by the effects of the pandemic on this population. At the Gerontological Advanced Practice Nurses Association, we believe that community advocates can use data to draw attention to the problems facing older adults to drive the public health conversation. Platforms like America’s Health Rankings provide valuable insights that guide our work and help us engage with students, lawmakers, advocates and others.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of primary care and mental health services among older adults; the Senior Report finds increases in mortality from chronic conditions like cancer and heart disease, which may have potentially been prevented earlier through primary care, as well as rising rates of depression and frequent mental distress. Many older adults avoided providers’ offices in-person because of the fear of infection from COVID-19, and some may have had a difficult time navigating telehealth visits — especially those with cognitive deficits. This resulted in delays in screenings and preventive care and missed opportunities for treating chronic conditions, contributing to the significant toll the pandemic took on many seniors’ emotional health and cognition.
Like the coronavirus itself, these challenges disproportionately impacted the most vulnerable older adults, especially low-income individuals, people of color and those with chronic diseases. For example, while digital literacy has gone from a privilege to a necessity, many poorer older adults don’t have the means to purchase a smartphone or reliable internet access, putting them at risk for experiencing isolation and losing access to essential services. Even when they can access in-person care, the lack of diversity in the health workforce serves as a barrier for patients of color who are often more comfortable working with providers who come from their own communities. To close gaps in senior health, we must address language barriers, teach cultural competency and prioritize equity and inclusion in both access to and provision of care.
As the nation’s older adult population continues to grow, the Senior Report reminds us how important it is to be thoughtful and passionate about addressing the needs of this population. Improving access to and quality of preventive care and mental health services are just two of the many issues that policymakers should prioritize, guided by data from the Senior Report, to help advance health equity and improve the lives of seniors everywhere. The healthier our seniors are, the more we can learn from their wisdom and the healthier we all will be as we age.