TALLAHASSEE, FL — Even before the pandemic, seniors were experiencing increasing mental- and behavioral-health challenges, according to a new report. The annual report from the UnitedHealth Foundation showed between 2016 and 2019, there were increases in drug-related deaths, suicide and frequent mental stress among people 65 and older nationwide.
Dr. Rhonda Randall, executive vice president and chief medical officer at UnitedHealthcare Employer and Individual, noted although the numbers varied geographically and there were disparities between racial and ethnic groups, the trends were further exacerbated by COVID-19.
“We saw a risk of social isolation continue to increase in this year’s report,” Randall reported. “We know that there is a significant correlation between social isolation and overall health and, in particular, behavioral health.”
The data showed seniors in Florida saw a 28% increase in frequent physical distress in the three years before the pandemic. However, the state’s seniors also had the nation’s highest rate of access to federal SNAP benefits for low-income seniors, coming in at number one.
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Jocelyne Fliger, president and CEO of Elder Care Services, an aging services nonprofit serving Leon County for more than 50 years, said they had to quickly pivot to find new ways to keep the area’s seniors active and engaged.
“The pandemic: We found a lot more seniors becoming even more isolated,” Fliger emphasized. “We tried to address this through pivoting some of our programs, making telephone reassurance calls. That was one way to try to break down that social-isolation barrier.”
The report also showed a higher percentage of seniors in Florida with high-speed internet and the state ranks in the top three for community support expenditures.
Randall noted there were more bright spots in the national data.
“In the good category, flu vaccinations were up in 2019 versus the two-year period prior to that by 6% nationally,” Randall confirmed.
By 2050, people older than 65 are expected to be about one-fifth of the total U.S. population. The authors hope the 2021 Senior Report will help leaders set future public-health priorities.