3 Ways You Can Improve an Older Woman’s Health

Robyn's Read | May 23, 2017

Robyn Stone believes that LeadingAge members can change the lives of millions of older women around the country by taking 3 giant steps.

During each year’s celebration of National Women’s Health Week, researchers like me get a chance to ponder how the nation could make it easier for all women to enjoy a healthy life.

This year, I took the opportunity to explain to Huffington Post readers why I’m feeling hopeful that new prevention strategies could help improve the health of older women, especially those with moderate and low incomes.

I’m the first to admit that my sense of hope stands in stark contrast to the current health picture of older women. That picture hasn’t changed much since I first published a collection of dismal statistics about older women in 1985.

  • Older women are still more likely than older men to live in poverty.
  • Older women still spend nearly 20% of household income on health care.
  • Older women with low and moderate incomes still have a significantly higher risk of developing chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

There’s something terribly wrong with this picture.

So why hope?

Because I believe that LeadingAge members can change the lives of millions of older women around the country by taking 3 giant steps:

1. LOWER YOUR PRICES

First and foremost, LeadingAge members must figure out how to deliver affordable housing and services. Older women need more affordable options across the spectrum of housing and assisted living communities, and home and community-based services.

This isn’t just about serving Medicaid beneficiaries, although that’s important. It’s about keeping moderate-income women in mind when you price your housing, services and supports. These women aren’t poor by government standards. But they are sure to be living on very constrained resources for many years to come.

I know this is a big request. But I have no doubt that mission-driven LeadingAge members are well equipped to handle it.

I urge you to talk with other LeadingAge members that already offer a wide range of residential and care options, including those that appeal to higher-income residents and those that provide high-quality housing and services to older adults of more modest means. These providers may have tips that will help you do the same.

2. FOCUS ON TELOMERES

During a recent meeting at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), I learned a lot about telomeres – those stretches of DNA that are located at the end of the chromosomes and hold the key to how we age and how we contract diseases, including cancer.

I’m no genetics expert, but I do know that the longer your telomeres are, the healthier you will be and the longer you will live.

On the bright side, there’s growing evidence that certain prevention strategies can actually lengthen a person’s telomeres. These strategies include exercise, smoking cessation, regular health screenings, as well as nontraditional prevention programs aimed at reducing social isolation and stress.

My second request to LeadingAge members, then, is to make it your goal to help residents and clients lengthen their telomeres for better long-term health.

You do that by working with community-based partners to implement programs that help older women prevent and manage disease, reduce social isolation, and address mental health issues. Then do everything you can to make sure those women use your programs.

That’s the hard part. You’ll need to find out what activities older women are willing to try, and then offer enough options to meet a wide variety of needs, preferences and abilities. You’ll need to be creative so you can offer personalized options at an affordable price.

3. WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE

Health disparities don’t just affect the older women your organization serves. They also affect women living in your local community, and in communities across the country. So, if you’re serious about bringing about real change for older women, you’ve got to think big.

Here are a few places to start:

  • Reach beyond your walls. Figure out a way to provide affordable services and prevention programming to low- and moderate-income women who live outside the walls of your community. You may have the wherewithal to provide free services as part of your social accountability program. If not, find a way to lower your costs by establishing a sliding scale fee schedule, or finding partners that can share service provision expenses.
  • Help make your community age-friendly. When housing becomes unstable, unstable health often follows. So, age-friendly communities need to offer a variety of affordable housing options for older adults. Healthy communities also should feature outdoor spaces where older adults can enjoy greenery and safe exercise; good access to transportation and healthy foods; and protections from environmental stressors that can cause disease. If your local leaders aren’t already thinking about these issues, raise their awareness and suggest a collaborative effort to make your city or town healthier and friendlier.
  • Become a research partner. I met many researchers at the CDC who are already working hard to find better strategies for preventing disease and promoting healthy aging. These experts would jump at the chance to conduct their research in collaboration with you and the older women you serve. Call your local university and ask how you can help.

IF YOU DON’T ACT, WHO WILL?

There’s one more task that’s essential to our success in improving the health picture of older women. You have to believe.

Believe that older women with low and moderate incomes deserve to be healthy for as long as possible.

And then believe that you have the ability – and the responsibility – to make that happen.

If nonprofit providers of aging services can’t figure out a way to improve the lives of older women, I don’t know who can.

I think you can.