Dr. Shrank discusses ‘New Future of Aging’ with former surgeons general

“Baby boomers are claiming they don’t want to age the way their parents did. What do you think this means?”

That’s the question Humana Chief Medical Officer Dr. William Shrank asked three highly esteemed former U.S. Surgeons General during a recent Humana-sponsored panel at ICAA 2019: Shaping the Future of Wellness, this year’s International Council on Active Aging Conference, Leadership Summit and Expo. And while the Surgeons General interpretations of the “new future of aging” may vary slightly, everyone agrees it’s a topic that deserves more attention from the healthcare industry and those caring for aging adults.  

Dr. Richard Carmona, Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders and Dr. Antonia Novello took the stage with Dr. Shrank in Orlando on October 11, and passionately discussed how today health care system can improve to care for a growing senior population.

Consider that by 2030, 20 percent of the U.S. population is projected to be 65 years or older. With the three former Surgeons General aged 69 or older, they each spoke from personal and professional experience. Each Surgeon General shared their observations on the need to better care for seniors in America, as well as their anecdotes on personal experiences with aging. All were steadfastly in favor of supporting cognitive brain health for seniors, as they see mental health as the bedrock for preventing and managing chronic disease and social determinants of health.

Some of the most memorable takeaways from the panel include:

  • The interdependence of social challenges
    • Dr. Shrank explained how some of the biggest challenges seniors face are social. We as a country are wildly over indexed in paying for health care, and extraordinarily under indexed in taking care of our people,” he explained when talking about social issues, like loneliness, and the impact they have on the current system.
  • Understanding the cultural and social needs for seniors
    • Dr. Carmona shared a touching story about an older woman he had met years ago while traveling. The woman was born in a small village and grew up to become the matriarch of the area, teaching and showing others how to live, grow crops and work with one another. This maintained a sense of belonging and community. She was 106-years-old, but had a sense of purpose, and a true role of importance to others. Culturally, the woman was revered, valued and admired in her community. Dr. Carmona explained how we need to give seniors today the same continued purpose surrounded by a network of social connections. These are key components to preventing loneliness.
  • Addressing brain health and the rise in dementia
    • Dr. Elders shared powerful words when it comes to dealing with brain health. “My brother used to pray every day that his body doesn’t outlive his mind,” she said. Unfortunately, figures show the longer someone lives, the more likely it is they develop dementia. Dr. Elders explained the importance of having a care infrastructure that addresses the individual’s clinical needs, in-home care and lifts the burden off other family members.   
  • Discerning the effect on caregivers
    • Dr. Novello spoke passionately on the importance of community and camaraderie, especially among physicians and other caregivers. “Doctors who are lonely and overworked, this is what we call ‘physician burnout’ today.” She stated being alone is not the same as being lonely and that we need to make sure today’s clinical leaders are also taking care of themselves.
    • Dr. Novello also went on to explain the importance of caregivers and how women are taking on childcare and parental care, on average, for 11.5 years of their life. “My question is, if we are taking care of everyone else, who is taking care of us?” Geography and gender are the biggest indicators of who is taking on the most caregiver responsibilities and Dr. Novello encouraged women to speak up and not continue as the silent minority.
  • The cost of loneliness
    • “Loneliness is now an epidemic,” Dr. Shrank said. “Fifty percent of women 75 and older live alone and we’re seeing more evidence that socially isolated individuals have worse health outcomes and higher health care costs. What can we do as a society for the inevitable health decline of Americans and the impact on the person who is sick, but also the family, the caregiver and the folks who wrap around and love that person?” This paints a powerful picture on the work that needs to be done and the opportunity the industry has to make aging in America a more graceful process for individuals and those who surround them every day.

Overall, the session reinforced Humana’s dedication to helping the industry move toward an integrated care delivery structure, including addressing social determinants of health, which may include sending physicians into members’ homes to witness firsthand the living environment that can impact the member’s health. 

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