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Former U.S. Surgeon General and Humana’s Chief Medical Officer team up on how to protect seniors and communities from COVID-19

  • How do we make sure seniors can get to the store to get food?
  • How do we help support those seniors who have some anxiety or depression so that those conditions are not exacerbated during this time?
  • How do we continue caring for seniors with chronic conditions?

These are just a few of the questions that Richard Carmona, MD, MPH, FACS, 17th Surgeon General of The United States, Distinguished Professor University of Arizona, and Humana Chief Medical Officer William Shrank, MD, MSHS, discussed with the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA).

The webinar conversation focused on concrete steps that seniors and others at risk for can take to help protect their physical, emotional and mental health during the coronavirus pandemic.  

Understanding the differences between social distancing and social isolation

Research shows that seniors who are lonely or socially isolated are four times more likely to be re-hospitalized within a year of discharge.

Right now, “we are in a setting where we’re asking seniors to stay home,” said Dr. Shrank. “Social distancing is important, but we don’t want social distancing to be the same as social isolation. We have seniors at home alone or at home with just a caregiver. We need to keep seniors engaged.”

“It is absolutely essential that we stay engaged with our senior populations,” Dr. Carmona argues, because many are not getting to see their friends and family and they need to stay connected so they can still feel good.”

In particular, Dr. Carmona recommends using digital tools like FaceTime to stay connected to families, grandchildren, attend church services or even exercise. “We should be doing everything we absolutely can to keep our senior population engaged, reading, writing, sharing information, music, things that help to defray the stress of the situation.”

Taking the precautionary steps to protect seniors from food insecurity

Access to healthy food can have a big impact on seniors’ overall health. The coronavirus paired with the current economic situation can exacerbate food insecurity among older Americans. Right now, a large percentage of seniors are food insecure, have very few opportunities for additional income, face a lack of transportation options and are concerned with going outside at all.

To help combat food insecurity, “agencies on aging, Meals on Wheels, and food banks in the community are all working together to ensure that the vulnerable populations who can’t go to the store and can’t shop have access to food,” said Dr. Carmona. “This is a time that really brings out the best in America. There isn’t one size that fits all…but what’s remarkable is how each community is coming together to identify those that are vulnerable – especially the senior population – and what they need to sustain life.”

Humana is also helping address food insecurity by proactively making phones calls to its seniors most at risk and connecting them with local community-based organizations like food banks.  

How telehealth can help seniors manage their chronic conditions

Despite the current situation, Dr. Shrank struck a tone of optimism by asking Dr. Carmona about the “unintended good consequences” and lessons learned that come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, citing how the adoption of telehealth has exploded because it keeps people from being infected and is a good way to access care in the home. Telehealth also enables seniors to bring their primary care physician into the home, which helps them with their chronic condition management.

Dr. Shrank also spoke about how telehealth can play a key role in keeping seniors safe. “At Humana, we’ve waived co-pays for all telehealth. Not just telehealth to see physicians for suspected coronavirus, but for primary care, for behavioral health visits. The goal is to keep our members away from health care settings so they reduce the likelihood that they’ll either be exposed to others or expose them.”

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