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mHealth and Housing: A Vital Recipe for Senior Health

A Washington think tank says mHealth and housing programs offer the best benefits for seniors wanting to stay active, healthy and in their own homes.

- How does one get seniors to use more mHealth tools at home? Make sure they have a home, and it’s capable of integrating new technology.

A Washington-based bipartisan think tank is making that case in a series of forums across the country, the first of which was held this week in Maine. The sessions aim to connect the growing “aging at home” movement among seniors with senior housing efforts.

“We live in an amazing age of technological connectivity,” U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, a former two-term governor and the forum’s keynote speaker, said. “It’s frustrating when you have this ability to connect, but it doesn’t happen.”

King should know. A strong advocate for telehealth in a state where healthcare is delivered to remote hunting, fishing and logging camps, island communities and Downeast fishing villages, he noted that healthcare costs account for 20 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, above the national average of 18 percent.

That combination of high healthcare costs, a rural and aging population, old and inefficient housing and limited broadband “is a recipe for suffering,” he added. “We’re living in these high-risk situations.”

With roughly 90 percent of seniors surveyed saying they want to live at home rather than an assisted care facility or some other site, the half-day conference, organized by the Bipartisan Policy Center's Senior Health and Housing Task Force, focused on programs that put seniors in their own homes or keep them in the ones they have. That means finding affordable housing that meets the needs of an aging population, removing barriers to access or mobility in the house or apartment, and giving seniors access to tools and resources that would help them live comfortable at home.

One of many dangers to seniors living at home is falls, which kill an estimated 27,000 seniors each year. Roughly one-third of all seniors fall each year (and half of those over 80), leading to 2.5 million emergency room visits, 700,000 hospitalizations and $34 billion in healthcare costs.

“Most of those falls happen at home, because that’s where most seniors spend their time,” said Dorothy Baker, a senior research scientist at the Yale School of Medicine. And even those stumbles that don’t lead to a hospital visit have consequences, including a tendency to become less active.

The key to reducing falls, said Baker and others at the forum, is making the senior’s home safer, by improving layout and design and incorporating telehealth tools that monitor seniors in their home, connect them with caregivers and alert them and their caregivers when there’s an increased chance of a fall, based on a senior’s health or other factors.

Kim Fitzgerald, CEO of Cathedral Square, a Vermont-based non-profit that develops communities for seniors and others with special needs, said senior-based programs have to “think of the whole person,” not just one’s healthcare or housing needs. A program can begin with a housing platform, but it should also incorporate health and wellness and other issues important to the senior.

Just as important – perhaps more so – is the funding mechanism.

Federal and state legislatures “don’t want to pay for new things,” Baker noted. Yet every 911 call is paid for in part by the government, and a senior who winds up in the hospital after a fall incurs, on average, $35,000 in medical bills in the three months after the fall.

King said the government should be doing more to improve senior living. Programs like Medicare and agencies like the Veterans Administration should be paying for housing improvements – from renovations to telehealth access – for seniors and veterans.

“One broken hip avoided would pay for 100 or 200 modified houses,” he pointed out. 

Dig Deeper:

Using mHealth to Help Seniors Age in Place

9 Connected Health Recommendations to Help Seniors Aging in Place

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