Gazette opinion: Annual senior health survey still leaves room for improvement

2014-05-28T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Annual senior health survey still leaves room for improvement The Billings Gazette
May 28, 2014 12:00 am

Montana ranks 30th in the nation when it comes to seniors' health.

That's the good news. And, the bad news.

It's hard to brag about being closer to the bottom than the top, but Montana's 30th-place ranking, according to the United Health Foundation, is up significantly from a year ago, when, in the same survey of senior health, we ranked 35th.

Not exactly, awe inspiring finishes; heck, it's not even the kind of thing we'll slap on a tourism brochure. However, the five-place jump is due to a lot of good initiatives that seem to be paying dividends. 

The report on seniors' health is a good reminder that there's still plenty of work to be done.

And, it appears as if the work will be plentiful for awhile.

Montana, like most other states, continues to be graying. It's not necessarily in Florida's situation, in which almost one in every five people is 65 or older. In Montana, 14.8 percent of our population, from the 2010 census numbers, is 65 years or older. The Census Bureau reports that from 2000 to 2010, the state's overall population grew just a little bit shy of 10 percent. Yet, during the same time period, in the category of 65 years or older, that percentage grew 21.3 percent. In the category of 85 years or older, that percentage grew even more (30.5 percent increase). There are more than 21,000 people older than 85 living in Montana today.

While those statistics put Montana in the middle of the pack when compared to other states, it's a good reminder that we'll continue to see Montana get more gray, which will put a strain on our resources.

What makes Montana different than some states, though, is the largely rural nature of the Treasure State.

Montana doesn't do so well on the annual survey because of access to health care, especially in rural areas. It's harder to get health services to some rural or even remote parts of the state. And, it's difficult for those with chronic or complicated medical conditions to travel. To complicate matters further, more than three out of every four Montanas live in the rural areas. 

Thankfully, this report and the issues it outlines come as no surprise to healthcare leaders and senior advocates.

Both the state's Department of Public Health and Human Services, along with groups like AARP Montana, have been working on this challenge, especially since seniors want to continue to live in rural areas.

We know that health centers in Billings -- and across the state -- continue to change health care models to fit the needs of their patients. It seems like the senior health report emphasizes the need to either get more doctors to rural areas of the state, or continue to find ways to bridge the land gap between doctors and patients.

Many of these rural areas are still called "frontier" when it comes to health care. In one respect, that's a pretty sobering term -- no one wants to say that they only have access to frontier-type medicine. Yet, at the same time, we hope those who are in the health care field and the aging field use Montana as a testing ground for things like telemedicine. We can't help but think that Montana continues to have the opportunity to be pioneers when it comes to getting seniors the care they need, in their own communities, without having to travel across an expansive state just to see a doctor.

Whatever we're doing seems to be working, but as the report notes: We still have a long way to go. 

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