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The Changing Health Needs of Older People

Birth rates are falling around the world and society is growing older. As this demographic change begins to have an impact on the global provision of healthcare, we explore the diverse range of health needs faced by today’s old people.

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Society is ageing faster than ever before, and governments around the world are coming under increasing pressure to provide responsible and reliable health care for older citizens. As healthcare systems try to cope with a significant rise in the number of elderly people requiring medical care, many advocates are urging governments to adopt new policies and practices to help ensure old people receive the care they deserve. But how do the health needs of people change as they grow older?

As with all age groups, the health and general well being of old people can vary dramatically. We are all aware of stories of individuals well into their seventies and eighties attempting to climb mountains, run marathons and similar age defying activities, yet there are many that enter bad health in their forties and fifties which requires daily medical care and attention. Individuals and their bodies can begin to age and slow down at any point in life, and one of the main concerns elderly people have today is whether there are effective care and treatment structures in place to help cope with these changes.

The rate at which people grow old varies greatly and is directly related to factors such as the individual’s home and work environment, genes and cultural behaviors. Good eating habits and leading a generally healthy lifestyle also play a prominent role in the possibility of a person developing some form of disability or disease. The standard ageing process impacts on everyone eventually and mostly consist of mental and physical changes that primarily affect movement and mobility, hearing, sight, memory, balance and motor skills.

Growing old increases the risk of developing a chronic health disease or illness such as cancer, diabetes, arthritis or cardiovascular disease. Elderly individuals suffering from such a disease are also at greater risk of suffering a related disease or developing an illness such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or dementia. In addition, if the chronic disease is serious and at an advanced stage, there is also high risk of suffering from increasing morbidity which may result in serious injury from a fall. An elderly person typically suffering from a chronic disease requires daily medical attention, medication, and possibly additional home assistance and care.

As the percentage of the population that are elderly increases, so does the demand for adequate health services. Older people in good health will mostly rely on primary health services, with hospital treatment usually only required for optional surgery or other such treatments. However, as these individuals grow older, it is inevitable that their health will begin to deteriorate and frequent or prolonged medical attention is usually necessary.

Studies have shown that individuals between the ages of 65 and 75 years are twice as likely to be admitted to hospital for treatment as opposed to the average person, while those aged over 85 years are five times as likely to require hospital treatment. Elderly individuals with complex health situations also require more visits to their local doctor, use hospitals more frequently and need more medication. Such patients also tend to require longer recuperation periods. The onus, therefore, rests on national governments to ensure that hospitals are properly equipped to deal with rising numbers of elderly patients.

The elderly also have specific healthcare needs in comparison to the general population. It is estimated that old people account for over 60 percent of all admissions due to falls. This figure rises to 70 percent and 64 percent in relation to hip and knee replacements respectively. Elderly patients also feature highly in the demand for palliative, sub acute, rehabilitation and ongoing care services. Another important point in relation to rehabilitation services is that following serious illness or injury, some elderly patients may not wish to undertake such treatment or care and may instead wish to avail of community or residential care services.

Most elderly people also wish to remain living in their home as they grow older and this places additional responsibility on family members and home carers. Caring for an elderly parent or family member requires the individual and their own family to make huge personal sacrifices in terms of their lifestyle and living standards. Homes will typically have to be adapted to cater for the elderly person and 24 hour care and attention is usually required. While most countries have a good standard of home help and related care services, given the increasing numbers of old people in today’s society, it is imperative that their changing health needs are adequately met and that they are allowed age with respect and dignity.