Healthy Aging in Maine

by Doug Cowan, MD

Have you heard of the Gray Tsunami? It’s just over the horizon! Our elderly population will bring tremendous demographic and economic challenges to our country, and particularly to Maine. We have the oldest average age of any state in the country and the next to lowest percentage of kids 5 to 18 years old. Now is the time to work together to plan for this future: 35 million over 65 in the U.S. in 2008, 85 million by 2030, more than 1 million over 100 by 2050.

How can aging Mainers stay healthy? That’s up to all of us, working together. Blue Hill Memorial Hospital and Eastern Maine Health Systems are transitioning to a new financial and medical model of payment for keeping us healthy, not payment for just visits, tests, and procedures. Since research shows that 80 percent of health happens in our homes and communities, and only 20 percent happens in medical facilities, our hospitals and primary care practices are focusing more attention on preventing problems before they occur or get worse. It’s also less expensive than treating us when we get sick. So here’s the challenge: rather than each of our hospitals, doctors, nurses, regional agencies, local community health groups, neighborhood groups, and family members working in isolation, we all need to work together, each doing what we do best, supporting each other and creating a stronger community of caregivers and support at all levels.

That’s where Healthy Peninsula comes in: our specialty is bringing diverse groups and voices together to work collaboratively to create better outcomes that last. We were the seed for Sedgwick Head Start, Friendship Cottage in Blue Hill, and Ready by 21 on Deer Isle, all successful with Healthy Peninsula helping to develop community ownership of each project. The same model can work with our new Healthy Aging Initiative. Aging individuals need three circles of support: the healthcare system, home service providers, and community support. Much of these three are already in place. What’s missing is working together. One initiative is just beginning to take shape to help fuse the first two circles: 10 local health and community service organizations are contemplating coming together to learn how we might better support each other, and work more collaboratively to improve the future care for our elderly and disabled, many now absent from the conversation. Each is doing important work supporting healthy aging on our peninsula, but we don’t connect with each other nearly enough. How can we help each other? How can we stretch our resources further by working more effectively together?

Community support is the third circle and is a key component that deserves more recognition and integration into the first two. If you are “connected” in your town, you know how many individuals, neighborhood circles, and church and Grange groups provide important support for our elderly. Think how much more effective that could be if it were networked into the healthcare and home service networks. Consider the potential of a community “early warning system” that could connect a failing elderly neighbor to needed services early on, not in the emergency department. Or supplemental community caregivers for an individual, recently discharged from the hospital, working with the medical team and home service agencies to keep her healthy and prevent unnecessary readmissions.

Because we care about each other in our towns, Healthy Peninsula will continue to explore ways to move forward with our Healthy Aging Initiative. So stay tuned, climb on board, and together we’ll make it happen!

Your Health Matters is a monthly health column by Healthy Peninsula and the Blue Hill Memorial Hospital.  Doug Cowan, MD lives in Brooksville and is a member of the Healthy Peninsula Advisory Board.

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