Nov 12

Senior Health in Montana

by Cindy Uken

When it comes to the health of seniors in Montana, the state is making incremental progress but still has significant room for improvement.

Montana ranked 30th in the nation for senior health this year, according to America’s Health Rankings Senior Report, published by the United Health Foundation. Montana was ranked 35th last year.

Notable improvements for senior health include declines in physical inactivity, improvements in the quality of nursing home care, reductions in avoidable hospitalizations and increased preparation for end-of-life care.

The Health Rankings Senior Report is a valuable tool for understanding the key challenges and opportunities facing Montana’s senior population, said Dr. Roger Muller, medical director of UnitedHealthcare of Montana.

“With the senior population expected to double in size in the next 25 years, it is important that we develop effective programs and solutions that address seniors’ health needs in Montana and nationwide,” Muller said.

Some of the challenges that Montana faces are a shortage of geriatricians, a high prevalence of falls among seniors
and a low percentage of health screenings among the senior population.

However, some of the state’s strengths include a low prevalence of obesity and a low percentage of hospital deaths. Also, the percentage of seniors with a dedicated health care professional increased in the past year, from 89.7 percent to 91.7 percent.

Montana is the fourth-largest state in the nation and is the third-most sparsely populated. At the same time, Montana is one of the nation’s “grayest” states – projected to have the nation’s fourth-oldest population by 2015. By 2025, one in four Montanans will have surpassed age 65 and by 2035, Montana’s senior population is set to double.

In addition, approximately 76 percent of the state’s residents call rural Montana home. The rural “frontier areas” of Montana contain more than 90 percent of the state’s total land area.

Those factors combine to create challenges in the state’s efforts to address the health issues of Montana’s older populations. The greatest challenge is access to care and services, said Joy Bruck, president of AARP Montana.

Given those challenges, it’s not surprising that Montana ranks 30th for senior health, she said.

Fortunately, Bruck said, Montana has a strong network of community partners dedicated to the senior sector.

“Those community partners, including AARP Montana, have been bracing for this ‘silver tsunami’ for quite some time,” Bruck said.

AARP Montana works with its community partners to hold events and seminars aimed at addressing Montana’s unique senior health care challenges, as well as educating elected officials regarding the needs and concerns of our growing older population, she said.

Richard Opper, director of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said the improvement over last year indicates that the state’s new public health initiatives are taking hold. Gov. Steve Bullock’s Health Improvement Plan is designed to help seniors live longer, healthier lives. Part of the plan supports the implementation of an evidence-based fall prevention program for seniors.

The successful Stepping On program is offered in 30 sites statewide for those who are 60 and older. The program is showing some positive results by reducing the number of falls among its participants. DPHHS also supports 35 sites in Montana with programs to implement exercise and self-management programs for Montanans with arthritis and related conditions.

“It’s exciting that Montana seniors are taking advantage of these programs, which can help add more years to their lives and time spent with loved ones,” Opper said.

Minnesota is the healthiest state in the nation, followed by Hawaii, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. Mississippi is the least healthy state for seniors, followed by Louisiana (49), Kentucky (48), Oklahoma (47) and Arkansas (46).

Cindy Uken is a reporter for the Billings Gazette.


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