Looking for a Partner? Call the Health Department

Robyn's Read | January 25, 2017

It's time for housing providers and health departments to start talking about how they can work together to address the needs of vulnerable older adults, writes Robyn Stone. 

I felt like a fish out of water when I decided to concentrate on issues affecting older adults while earning my doctorate in public health.

The University of California at Berkeley had no formal doctoral program focusing on public health and aging in those days.

So I decided to design my own.

I’ve been working ever since to bring the principles and resources of our public health sector to the field of aging services.

Connecting Public Health and Aging Health

All these years later, I’m still proud to put the letters “DrPH” – doctor of public health – behind my name.

Dedicated public health professionals in state and local health departments around the country work tirelessly every day to promote the health of children and families, respond to health epidemics like AIDs, Ebola, and the Zika virus, and develop strategies to prevent disease among the general population.

That’s noble work.

But somewhere along the line, our public health system forgot that every community in the nation is also home to older adults who struggle with social and health challenges.

Health departments have to start focusing on this rapidly growing and increasingly frail segment of our population. And soon.

What Public Health Partners Can Bring to the Table

Some health departments may assume that the Department of Aging in their state or locale can “take care” of older people on their own. But that assumption overlooks the unique – and essential – resources that health departments could bring to health-promotion initiatives for older adults.

  • Health departments have access to an incredible storehouse of data that could help their partners in the field of aging services understand and develop strategies to address the health challenges facing older adults.
  • Health departments can conduct community health needs assessments that include the elderly population. These assessments can help direct the use of local hospital social benefit dollars to elder needs.
  • Health departments are experts at bringing together coalitions of stakeholders representing multiple sectors. They could mobilize these stakeholders to take a big-picture approach to promoting the health status of older people, and addressing the social factors that impact that health status.
  • Health departments are well positioned to identify evidence-based interventions and then develop policies and strategies to scale those interventions and obtain the financial support needed to sustain them.

Change is on the Way

Bringing together the aging and public health sectors has not been an easy task. But we’re making progress, thanks to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO).

ASTHO adopted healthy aging as a major strategic priority in 2015. As a result, health departments in 36 states and 2 territories have pledged to promote the health of older adults.

To support state efforts, ASTHO convened a 7-state learning community focused on working across sectors to promote policies that support healthy aging. It also issued an impressive Menu of Strategies that health departments could adopt as a way to increase “the number of older adults who can live and age well in our communities.”

Here’s a sampling of initiatives that ASTHO thinks health departments could take on in collaboration with local partners, including providers of aging services.

  • Using data to understand the older population and to determine areas of greatest need/opportunity for promoting their health.
  • Building healthy communities by advocating for affordable housing and community accessibility, and increasing transportation options for seniors.
  • Facilitating prevention services for older adults, including vaccines, health screenings, chronic disease self-management, and oral health.
  • Empowering older adults and their caregivers to advocate for the services they need, gain support in the workplace, and plan for the future.
  • Eliminating health disparities by identifying care and service gaps, and targeting efforts to ensure all older adults are being served.
  • Encouraging healthy living by promoting tobacco cessation, good nutrition, physical activity, and alcohol and drug abuse prevention among elders.
  • Reducing injury by promoting policies and/or evidence-based practices to prevent falls among older adults.
  • Educating older adults about sexually transmitted diseases, and working with health care providers to prevent and treat those diseases.
  • Promoting well-being by identifying dementia treatment and prevention services, and educating providers about validated cognitive assessment tools.

Housing Plus Public Health Services

If the public health sector adopted even a few of these strategies, it would make a tremendous difference in the lives of older people. Providers of affordable senior housing, and the residents who live in their properties, have a major stake in seeing this happen.

It’s critical that housing providers reach out to their local health departments to explain how housing properties can be a platform for the provision of health and supportive services to vulnerable older adults. Groups of housing providers could bring the same message to their state health department.

Housing providers need the help of public health departments to launch and sustain housing plus services initiatives designed to help residents remain healthy and independent in their homes and communities.

And, to be frank, health departments need our help so they can reach the vulnerable older adults they were established to serve.

Let’s start talking.