Opinion: Make it easier to age in CT

The downtown streetscape in Middletown.

The downtown streetscape in Middletown.

Cassandra Day / Hearst Connecticut Media

For the first time, we now know at a granular level the health needs and issues for older residents in every single one of the state’s 169 cities and towns — and down to the neighborhood level in large cities.

“The Connecticut Healthy Aging Data Report” includes comprehensive data that can be used to identify strengths, needs and opportunities in communities across the state to help policymakers and community leaders see exactly what is needed, what works and where we need to put our efforts. Simply put, the keys are here to help create thriving, vibrant communities that support healthy aging.

While most of the data was collected before March 2020, it shows in stark black and white what COVID has made even clearer: Systemic inequities result in health disparities. Towns and cities seeking to addressing inequities can use the resources in the report to inform decisions about economic development, public health, housing and transportation.

Funded by the Tufts Health Plan Foundation and produced by the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston, with input from the Connecticut Age Well Collaborative, Connecticut Community Care and the state’s Agencies on Aging, this new report is a crucial resource for employers, communities and health care providers. The report details how older people fare on health issues including vaccinations, diabetes, cancer, lymphomas and leukemia, and heart and liver disease. It offers insights on nutrition and food security, behavioral health and social isolation, as well as data on transportation, housing and safety and the availability of hospitals, nursing homes and home health aides.

The report is invaluable when it comes to snapshots of aging in various Connecticut cities and towns.

Take Middletown: According to the report, with almost 9,500 residents over 60, which equates to about 20 percent of the population, the city has a slightly younger population than the state at large.

Middletown does well on several measures — including beating state averages on preventive screenings like mammograms and annual physicals, as well as on rates of glaucoma, prostate cancer and asthma. Middletown also fares well in the social institutions that enable healthy aging, with 220 primary care providers, two hospitals and seven nursing homes within 5 miles; 39 home health agencies, a community health center, nine hospice agencies, two adult day senior centers, two universities or community colleges, two public libraries and a YMCA.

According to the analysis, Middletown has high rates of health issues for chronic issues such as COPD, diabetes, hypertension, heart attack and liver disease, some of which can be attributed to social determents of health. Lack of access to nutritious foods, outdoor greenspace, affordable housing and transit, and income inequality are all contributing factors.

Finally, rates of depression in older residents — something that is almost certain to have increased in Middletown during the pandemic — are high. Increasingly, health professionals look at social isolation, the lack of social connections and sense of community, as a health issue as damaging as smoking or obesity. And Middletown has many residents, 34.7 percent of those over 65, who live by themselves: statewide that number is 28.4 percent. So along with promoting healthier behaviors, trying to tackle food insecurity and promoting intergenerational programs, we all need to think more about ways to include older residents in our daily lives.

Policymakers should look at this data to determine what programs they can implement at both the municipal and state levels to make it easier to age in Connecticut. And also, individuals, to get a better sense of what aging is like in their communities and to identify ways they can improve their own health. Armed with information, we can make it less difficult for everyone to live happier, healthier lives as they age.

Marla Pantano is president of CarePartners of Connecticut, a local Medicare Advantage Plan.