LACONIA — For the first time, health-care providers and community leaders in the Lakes Region can see detailed statistics that bring a level of focus to the impact of the area’s aging population.
A study released this week provides town-by-town hard numbers on 166 health indicators for older adults, from the incidence of chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, and psychotic disorders, to the percentage of senior citizens living alone.
For example, the study shows there are 4,195 people age 60 or older living in Laconia — 25.9 percent of the city’s population, compared to the state overall average of 22.7 percent.
Within that population, the study showed, there are above-average numbers for numerous physical and emotional issues, including stroke, COPD, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, and dementia.
For area healthcare providers, the statistics contained in the New Hampshire Healthy Aging Data Report confirm what they have been observing for years.
“This study explains what we’ve been seeing for a while,” said Dr. Fred Jones, chief medical officer for LRGHealthcare which operates Lakes Region General Hospital in Laconia, Franklin Regional Hospital, and numerous medical practices.
The higher incidence of obesity among the aging population means there will be a greater demand for orthopedic services such as joint replacements, Jones said.
Other health problems related to aging will result in more people needing to see specialists like urologists, eye surgeons, and doctors who treat chronic conditions like diabetes and COPD, not to mention primary care physicians.
LRGHealthcare believes that its ongoing monitoring of the growing need for health services among the elderly has made it better prepared to meet the increasing demand.
Jones said the organization has hired another orthopedics specialist, and is actively recruiting more. In addition, it has hired 51 full-time permanent hospital nurses, some of whom replaced temporary contract nurses.
He said recruiting medical professionals is an ongoing challenge, but the organization is making “headway” in that regard.
Next month, Lakes Region General Hospital plans to reopen its elder care psychiatric unit, said Marge Kearns, vice president of clinical services. That will help those who suffer from more intense episodes of depression and psychiatric disorders. In order to serve those needs, the hospital has hired a new psychiatrist and additional support providers like specially trained nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants.
“This report substantiates where we are putting our efforts,” Kearns said.
The numbers are important not just to those directly involved in providing health-care services, but also to those whose job it is to take a longer-term view of the implications of the area’s aging population.
While the study points to the health-care challenges, it also shows that, healthwise, the Lakes Region is in as good — or in some ways a better — position than other parts of the state.
While New Hampshire has the second-largest older population on a percentage basis (Maine is the oldest), the state also ranks as one of the healthier places to live.
However, this hides significant variations and disparities within the state, which the report explores. Put simply, where you live matters to your health, the study states.
According to the report, New Hampshire has the second-oldest median age in the country, with more than 20 percent of residents currently over the age of 60.
“Aging is not a bad thing," said Carissa Elphick, director for Belknap and Carroll counties for ServiceLink. “We need to know how to support older people.”
While the overall percentage of those 65 and older is high in some Lakes Region communities — 34.9 percent in the case of Gilford — there are other factors, such as the percentage who live in their own homes and who have their own transportation, that point to the stability and resiliency of that population.
For Elphick and Shelley M. Carita, the executive director of the Partnership for Public Health, the study, funded by the Tufts Health Plan Foundation, is a treasure trove of information that highlights the challenges as well as the opportunities in dealing with the aging in the state.
Carita hopes the study will trigger serious discussions among health-care professionals, public officials and community leaders on ways to fill gaps that may exist in services for the elderly.
By way of example, Elphick pointed to a new initiative in Gilford that is based on a Village-to-Village model which has created a grassroots organization to support older adults who are living in the community. In communities where that model is already set up, there are opportunities to do things such as gather for coffee, take walks, dine out and go to movies. Volunteers do tasks that friends and neighbors might do, including providing transportation, helping with household chores and assisting with technology.
The Gilford Youth Center is providing a mobile meal service that supplements Meals and Wheels, Elphick explained.
“It’s equal parts social health and community connectedness,” Carita said of the initiative.
The study will be a valuable tool in helping organizations to leverage government and nonprofit funding, which can then be used to sustain current programs and help to start up new ones.
“In the past, we’ve been data-starved,” said Carita, “but now we have hard data to support our fundraising efforts.”
“This will help us substantiate our grant-writing,” agreed Terri Champagne, LRGHealthcare’s chief nursing officer.
Kim Koulet, who for 30 years headed up the Lakes Region Planning Commission, said the real challenge underscored by the report is how to do an adequate job to accommodate the needs of the growing older population.
The leadership for the effort will need to come from local organizations that are already in place and familiar with the local realities of the situation, he said.
The quality of life for seniors requires more than just access to medical and personal-care services. Also important are transportation services, the right kind of housing, and ease of access to grocery stores and other retail establishments.
Koulet noted that lack of public transportation makes living in some Belknap County communities particularly problematic for seniors, once they get to the point where they can no longer drive or no longer feel comfortable doing so.
Jones noted that transportation can be a factor in how some people access health care. There are instances, he said, of people who come to a hospital emergency room because they have no way to get to a doctor except by taking an ambulance.
Elphick said communities also need to think about whether the kind of housing they have includes dwellings that are conducive to older people who more typically have mobility limitations.
To view the interactive map, visit www.healthyagingdatareports.org