The Growing Importance of Social Supports for Seniors

When most people think of senior care they think only of the medical aspects of care. This includes medication, access to doctors and hospitals, and skilled nursing facilities. However, there is another side to elder care that is now growing in attention and recognition, and that is social supports for senior care.

What are Social Supports?

The medical side of senior care is controlled by doctors, hospitals, drug companies, Medicare, and Medicaid. They encourage the use of pharmaceutical drugs, medical procedures, and diagnostic tests. Social supports are facets of senior care not paid for by Medicare and instead fall under a “softer” term of wellbeing. This area includes:

· Community and family assistance · Good nutrition · Exercise · Access to transportation · Safe housing
…and other, “fuzzier” aspects of senior life that contribute to overall wellbeing and quality of life.

Research in Social Supports

Until recently, most doctors and medical professionals discounted the benefits of social supports. It is difficult to write a prescription for more social interaction or scientifically gauge how much it is helping. However, two reports have recently been published that illustrate the benefits of social supports and how they can help the medical side of senior care.

The first study was done by the United Health Foundation, called “America’s Health Rankings Senior Report.” The report measured which states are the healthiest, and which are the least, for seniors. In order to determine which states were healthiest the report used typical medical indicators such as health care providers, preventable hospitalizations, and the like. However, the study also included access to social supports in its findings. Factors included the percentage of seniors getting good nutrition, physical activity, and volunteerism. Using these indicators in its report signaled to medical professionals that social supports matter when determining what is healthy for seniors.

The second study was published by The Commonwealth Fund, entitled “Addressing Patients’ Social Needs: An Emerging Business Case for Provider Investment.” This organization has historically only focused on medical care for seniors, but it is now starting to see the value in social supports in long-term care. The paper explains how programs can successfully integrate medical and social care into one comprehensive package for seniors.

How Social Supports Aid in Senior Care

The message from both papers is simple – social supports help improve outcomes and in the long term can save money in elder care. A healthcare plan in Minnesota recently adopted an integrated plan of medical and social services. It has reported a significant decrease in hospital stays and emergency room visits since the inclusion of social supports in its program. Although it is still in its early stages, the combination of medical and social support services into a single program has the potential to increase the quality of life for seniors and aid in their long-term care. While some advocates are concerned that the combination of programs may medicalize social support systems, most are upbeat about the possibility of medical professionals recognizing the benefits of social supports in elder care.

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