How to Help Achieve Optimal Health for the Elderly

Needed: More age-friendly communities, geriatricians and accessible care

(This article is the 17th in a weekly Next Avenue series, The Future of Aging: Realizing the Potential of Longevity, published by the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging. Links to the rest of the series appear at the end of this article.)

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) believes that everyone in America should have the opportunity to achieve the healthiest life possible, no matter where they live or work, the color of their skin or their economic status. For older people, this goal might seem like a pipe dream, a reality only for the young, the strong, and the well.

Robin Mockenhaupt, chief of staff, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Robin Mockenhaupt, chief of staff, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

But it is possible to build a culture of health that helps the elderly achieve optimal health — not perfect, but the best for each individual. We can get there, I believe, by hewing to these overarching strategies:

Building a Shared Value of Healthy Aging  Too many of us think that old age equals poor health and that older people can’t adopt healthier behaviors. In fact, the majority of older adults are able to manage independently until their very advanced years, even those with chronic disabilities and illnesses. And retired people continue to play productive roles in their families and communities.

It is never too late to benefit from increased physical activity, social engagement, and other healthy behaviors. One way is through volunteering.

AARP’s Experience Corps uses nearly 3,000 older volunteers in 22 cities to tutor struggling elementary school children in reading. The Corps is improving literacy rates, enriching the lives of its volunteers and strengthening schools and communities — a triple win.

It is never too late to benefit from increased physical activity, greater social engagement, and other healthy behaviors.

Cross-Sector Collaboration  Partnerships among businesses, public agencies, community groups, health-care providers and older adults themselves can develop innovations that help seniors remain independent and productive for as long as possible.

It’s a lesson the tech sector learned after years of developing digital devices for the elderly that were too complex or hard to manipulate. Aging 2.0, a platform for connecting aging care innovations, now includes older adults on panels to evaluate concepts. It is also partnering with the AARP Foundation on the Aging in Place Challenge, which offers a $50,000 price for the most innovative solutions to help low-income older people continue to live in their homes as they age.

Creating Healthier, Equitable and Age-Friendly Communities  We need more towns and cities where people of all ages and circumstances can safely go for a walk, get around without a car, enjoy public spaces, buy healthy food and find the services they need.

Lawrence, Mass., one of RWJF’s Culture of Health Prize winners, is such a place. This predominantly Latino, working-class city has integrated its senior center into the community, with programs ranging from citizenship classes to diabetes self-management training to Zumba. It welcomes residents of all races, cultures and ages. The city even moved its weekly farmers’ market next to the Senior Center; business tripled as a result.

RWJF is also proud that Princeton, N.J., the foundation’s hometown, was the first city in the state to be named an “age-friendly community” by the World Health Organization, thanks to its walkable downtown, access to cultural activities, safe and affordable transportation and range of housing options. There are 75 such communities in the United States, and AARP offers a toolkit to help others join the movement.

Strengthening Health Services and Supports  In a culture of health, health care must be equitable, accessible, efficient and timely for all patients, no matter their age.

To make sure that older patients get the care they need, the nation must address the severe shortage of geriatricians. There also is an overwhelming need to “gerontologize” other professionals and clinicians so the older population receives the best care across the board.

Additionally, we must also come up with better supports for family members that are serving as unpaid caregivers, often at a cost to their own health.

By keeping these tenets in mind, we can better promote health for all ages. That means older adults can spend more time with their grandkids, engage with their communities, work if they want to, volunteer, travel — the possibilities are endless.


The first article in this series was A New Model for the Future of Aging. The second was Personalized Aging: Extending Lifespans and Healthspans. The third was Boomers: Less Tied to Friends and Family Than Others Are. The fourth was What It Will Take for the U.S. to Profit From the Longevity Dividend. The fifth was Work, Retirement and Financial Security in the 21st Century. The sixth was Technology, Aging and the Coming Fifth Wave. The seventh was 5 Course Corrections Needed for a Better Future of Aging. The eighth was Let’s Make the Most of the Intergenerational Opportunity. The ninth was How We Can Use Our Longer Lives to Do Good. The 10th was Building Cityscapes for Healthy Aging. The 11th was Aging in the ‘Right’ Place. The 12th was How to Make Longer Working Lives Work. The 13th was Four Freedoms That Will Define the Future of Aging. The 14th was The Future of Healthy Aging… Is Yesterday. The 15th was You’re Going to Get Old, So Think About It Now. The 16th was Does Purpose Only Benefit the Young?

By Robin Mockenhaupt
Robin Mockenhaupt is chief of staff of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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