Visioning for the future of aging and health

Ted Johnson, MD, says the United States is not prepared to meet the care needs of the next wave of aging older adults. “The statistics nationally show that by the year 2030, the demographics of every U.S. state will be similar to that of Florida today. Another way of looking at that: the number of people age 65 and older in the state of Georgia will increase 100 percent by 2020. We’re facing a tremendous aging wave, and we don’t know how we’re going to meet the needs of that group.”

Ted Johnson, MD

Johnson is leading the Emory Center for Health in Aging, a program that addresses health care issues affecting the rapidly growing senior population in the United States through research, clinical care, community outreach and education.

Johnson also serves as director of the Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology, Department of Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine, and is associate director and Atlanta site director for the Birmingham/Atlanta VA Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center.

Johnson says he is committed to a new vision of aging. His agenda for reaching that vision:

Target conditions associated with disability common in seniors: We need to target specific disease processes–Alzheimer’s, urinary/fecal incontinence, obesity, congestive heart failure–and develop breakthrough treatments and better predictive models so that we can understand what it is that makes people with these chronic conditions get out of control and currently, end up in nursing homes.

Build livable communities: We need to build communities that will sustain people as they age, and that means livable and walkable communities, with public transportation and access to stores and food. We need urban planning, as well as rural planning. Aging people shouldn’t lose their ability to live independently because they can no longer drive a car.

Help equip specialists to care for the elderly: We’re dedicated to providing training for people who choose a career in geriatric medicine, but we also provide outreach to professionals who might encounter elderly people in their practice, but don’t sit for formal board training or complete a clinical fellowship. Even though the geriatric boards require one year of post-residency training, we’re encouraging our fellowship graduates to invest multiple years in formal training, and we’re asking all new faculty hires to have accomplished the same.

Support caregivers: We must develop, test, and disseminate meaningful programs that offer support to caregivers. These individuals need emotional and physical support. We’re testing models in one of our VA demonstration projects — home messaging units that allow caregivers to receive educational information and emotional support. The programs are interactive; if a caregiver answers that her stress levels are high two days in a row, we call them to see how we can help. We believe that sustaining caregivers will also allow people to remain in their homes.

Improve health: We need to develop meaningful strategies that can be engaged by folks in their 60s, the young and old to sustain exercise and dietary programs that can help them deal with chronic conditions, including obesity and diabetes. Physical declines accompany aging, but with the right kind of coaching and monitoring and encouragement and management, we can help people stay fit.

Seek more partners: We know, as geriatric doctors, that we’re not going to accomplish anything by ourselves without partnerships–not just collaboration, but real partnerships with nurses, social services personnel, aides and housekeepers, and community and government organizations.

Utilize technology: We’re partnering with Georgia Tech to help design and deploy the next generation of home monitoring and communications devices that connect individuals who are physically isolated to the community. These systems can also monitor for safety—whether they’ve made it out of the bathroom successfully, opened the refrigerator that day, or if there are unexpected issues like water coming up from shower drain. Our approach prioritizes respecting older adults’ privacy while ensuring their safety on a daily basis.

Read more about Johnson and listen to a Sound Science podcast

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