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America’s health system isn’t ready for the surge of seniors with disabilities

Judith Graham, KFF Health News on

Published in Senior Living Features

The number of older adults with disabilities — difficulty with walking, seeing, hearing, memory, cognition, or performing daily tasks such as bathing or using the bathroom — will soar in the decades ahead, as baby boomers enter their 70s, 80s, and 90s.

But the health care system isn’t ready to address their needs.

That became painfully obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic, when older adults with disabilities had trouble getting treatments and hundreds of thousands died. Now, the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health are targeting some failures that led to those problems.

One initiative strengthens access to medical treatments, equipment, and web-based programs for people with disabilities. The other recognizes that people with disabilities, including older adults, are a separate population with special health concerns that need more research and attention.

Lisa Iezzoni, 69, a professor at Harvard Medical School who has lived with multiple sclerosis since her early 20s and is widely considered the godmother of research on disability, called the developments “an important attempt to make health care more equitable for people with disabilities.”

“For too long, medical providers have failed to address change in society, changes in technology, and changes in the kind of assistance that people need,” she said.

 

Among Iezzoni’s notable findings published in recent years:

Most doctors are biased. In survey results published in 2021, 82% of physicians admitted they believed people with significant disabilities have a worse quality of life than those without impairments. Only 57% said they welcomed disabled patients.

“It’s shocking that so many physicians say they don’t want to care for these patients,” said Eric Campbell, a co-author of the study and professor of medicine at the University of Colorado.

While the findings apply to disabled people of all ages, a larger proportion of older adults live with disabilities than younger age groups. About one-third of people 65 and older — nearly 19 million seniors — have a disability, according to the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire.

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