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What is an Age-Friendly Health System and Why is it Important?

In 1900, the average lifespan for both men and women was less than 50 years old.

It was 77.8 years old in the first half of 2020.

You can see why an age-friendly health system is so important today. Modern medicine has helped increase life expectancy and allowed us to live longer, healthier lives. But that doesn’t mean we live in an aging-friendly society. The messaging around life after 65 isn’t aging-friendly, either, nor does it always emphasize long-term care and prevention.

Robyn Stone, DrPH, recently pointed this out in a piece for the CDC blog.

“Once we reach 65, our society begins sending us some pretty dangerous subliminal messages. Those messages tell us that by the time we’re ‘elderly,’ it’s really too late to do anything to keep ourselves healthy,” wrote Stone, the senior vice president of research at LeadingAge and the co-director of the LeadingAge LTSS Center at UMass Boston. 

But this messaging is misleading. Research shows older adults can and should take steps to prolong their lives and prevent disease. For example, using sun protection can reduce the risk of melanoma.

Changing the conversation around the healthcare needs of the 65+ population is crucial. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the number of people in the United States ages 65 and over will reach nearly 64 million in 2050, up from 43.1 million in 2012.

The Age-Friendly Health System initiative is trying to change that. The initiative, started by  The John A. Hartford Foundation and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), in partnership with the American Hospital Association (AHA) and the Catholic Health Association of the United States (CHA), seeks to:

  • Follow an essential set of evidence-based practices
  • Cause no harm
  • Align with What Matters to the older adult and their family caregivers.​

This initiative sounds great, but you may be wondering what it means, how it affects you, and where you can find an age-friendly provider, including for long-term care.

What is an Age-Friendly Health System?

To become an Age-Friendly Health system, providers must adopt the 4Ms across all settings:

  • What Matters: Understand and align with every older adult’s individual goals for their health outcomes and preferences. These goals may be for long-term care and end-of-life care.

  •  Medication: Use age-appropriate medications as necessary. Ensure it aligns with the older adult’s specific healthcare goals (What Matters, Mentation and Mobility).

  • Mentation: Prevent, identify, treat and manage delirium across healthcare settings, including long-term care.

  • Mobility: Ensure the older adult safely moves each day. It helps them continue to function. For example, the provider may encourage them to move around a long-term care facility or with family and friends in their neighborhood.

Here are a few examples of what age-friendly healthcare might look like:

  • A hospital screening for delirium every 12 hours

  • A hospital or provider at a practice asking the older adult What Matters most, ensuring it is documented and communicating these goals with the entire care team.

  • A hospital or provider at a practice going over high-risk medication use and documenting it. They may deprescribe or avoid these types of medications, document them and communicate the changes with the patient and across care settings.

  • A doctor within a practice screening for depression and documenting the results.

If the health system providers adopt these 4Ms, we could have a more aging-friendly society.

Where Can I Find an Age-Friendly Health System Provider?

age-friendly health systems aren't hard to find.

It’s understandable that you’d want an older loved one to see an age-friendly provider. Or, if you are an older adult, you may want to ensure you see one, whether it’s for long-term care or a hospital visit. We don’t always feel like we live in an aging-friendly society, but the Institute for Healthcare Improvement has screened and recognized healthcare systems that have shown exemplary adaptation of and alignment with the 4Ms framework.

You can find a list of these age-friendly health system providers here.

A Final Word

Becoming a more aging-friendly society benefits all of us, and healthcare and long-term care facilities can play a huge role in this.

“We need to use every means possible to give older adults myriad opportunities to remain healthy for as long as possible,” wrote Stone. “Make no mistake about it. Eventually—and inevitably—every one of us will benefit from those opportunities.

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