America is getting older — and fast. More than 10,000 “baby boomers” turn 65 every day. Coupled with those from the “Greatest Generation” living longer, the United States is about to see this portion of its population double over the next 20 – 25 years.
Age-friendly policies and practices that reflect this trend in our communities are catching on. For example, the World Health Organization’s Global Age-friendly Cities and Communities grew from 258 in 2014 to over 1,000 today. The AARP Network of Age-friendly Communities expanded from 60 to 148 just in the last year. Many organizations are working toward the goal of making their cities work better for older adults and improve lives for all generations, particularly in healthcare.
At St. Mary’s Medical Center, we’ve started a program called Senior Comfort Services. We hope it will be a step toward the big picture in the “age-friendly” movement. We’ve made some changes to help our seniors feel more comfortable and confident while they receive treatment. Some rooms have been converted to reflect designs that acknowledge the changes we face when aging. Our age-friendly spaces will be focused on many obstacles to treatment, including accessibility, safety and comfort for our aging population:
• More privacy – Quiet areas which are large enough to accommodate the dignity of the patient and extra seating for family members who often need to be with older loved ones receiving treatment.
• Warmer environment – Temperatures in the rooms reflect the needs of older patients, whose bodies don’t keep them as warm as they used to. This is caused by a natural dip in their metabolic rate due to the aging process. A lowered metabolic rate affects the body’s ability to maintain what is considered a normal temperature of 98.6 degrees. For the same reason, blankets that have been warmed are available at all times.
• Larger, easy-to-read clocks – From clocks to signage, the legibility of important information can be critical to patients with visual impairments. Even less important information, such as large-print magazines are available to read while waiting.
• Softer-colored surroundings with better lighting – Because the pupil of the eye decreases in diameter and becomes less responsive with age, seniors need as much as three times more light than younger persons in order to perceive the shape and fine details of objects. It is equally important to provide light sources that do not cause glare. Dimmers will give patients control of their environment.
• Assistive devices for hearing and vision – Televisions capable of closed-captioning and special headsets are provided to patients with hearing difficulties. This can be very important when doctors are discussing instructions with their patients. According to a study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, patients over 65 who underwent outpatient surgery were 54 percent more likely to be readmitted to the hospital within 30 days, mostly because they have trouble understanding their discharge instructions and medication dosing.
• Slip-resistant floors with handrails and grab bars – One-third of Americans aged 65+ fall each year. Every 13 seconds, an older adult is treated in the Emergency Room for a fall, which is the leading cause of fatal injury (21,700 deaths) and the most common cause of nonfatal trauma-related hospital admissions (734,000) among older adults.
In addition, we’ve created a network of preferred skilled nursing facilities that meet a strict set of quality and safety standards set for by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. These facilities are reviewed quarterly to guarantee the highest level of care is provided. We’ve also added a post-acute liaison dedicated to the Senior Comforts Services program. Once they are discharged, the post-acute liaison follows-up with our senior patients, ensuring they are never overlooked. By creating this continuum of care, we hope to provide peace of mind to the patients, and their families, knowing that a St. Mary’s doctor will continue to be involved and provide a seamless transition from hospital to nursing facility.
As it expands, the Senior Comfort Services program plans to include educational resources, additional dedicated staff, and partnerships with organizations to offer senior-tailored activities. We think catering to our senior patients is a step in the right direction to creating a more “age-friendly” society. Besides, we think they’ve earned it.