Senior Health Literacy: Raising the Score

Health literacy is our ability to understand health information and make the best health care decisions. A seminal study of these skills has issued a troubling report card: just 12 percent of all adults – and 3 percent of seniors – have proficient health literacy.

“Low health literacy has been linked to poor health outcomes, such as higher rates of hospitalization and less frequent use of preventive services,” says Callie Whitwell, chief operating officer and founding partner at Lifetime Wellness. Her company provides person-centered wellness, life enrichment, and recreational programming to independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing and rehabilitation, and memory care facilities throughout Texas and Oklahoma.

“At Lifetime Wellness, we’re devoted to helping seniors raise their health literacy scores – providing tools to develop healthy behaviors, enhance adherence to care plans, and be more proactive in monitoring their personal health needs. We address not only body wellness, but whole-person well-being, including physical, emotional, social, intellectual, vocational, and spiritual health.”

Closing the Gap

“Becoming more health literate can help seniors understand health and disease, make better lifestyle choices, and be part of the overall conversation about their health,” Whitwell says. “Often, their kids and doctors are talking about mom’s or dad’s health needs, while mom or dad may not understand what’s going on.

“Anyone can have low health literacy, even people with high literacy skills overall. Most of us have trouble understanding health information at some point in our lives. A key challenge with seniors is that many are not comfortable with navigating the internet as a source of information. They may be unfamiliar with disease signs and symptoms and not know much about prevention.”

To help close the gap, Lifetime Wellness provides health education, often led by a wellness specialist. This person has a background in health and wellness, chronic disease, and disease prevention – and is equipped to educate residents on practical steps they can take to improve their health.

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Customizing Education

The wellness specialist provides educational assessments based on a resident’s diagnosis, from diabetes to high blood pressure, osteoporosis to chronic heart failure. Residents are engaged in dialogue and provided with materials that are easy to read, understand, and act on.

“So much of health literacy hinges on the communication skills of health professionals,” Whitwell says. “We assess where residents are in their health understanding and provide education that matches their level of knowledge.”

Education is customized to individual learning styles. “We all absorb information in different ways, and this has an impact on how we learn,” Whitwell says. “Some of us are visual and learn best when we can ‘see’ the information. Others may learn better through hearing or touch. Our staff focuses on discovering each senior’s dominant learning style, building rapport, and customizing our approach to resident preferences.”

Assessments are helpful not only for long-term-care residents but also for patients in short-term rehabilitation. “When they go home, they’re more aware of what to watch out for – and that can reduce the likelihood of their returning to the hospital,” Whitwell says.

She offers the example of a resident in a pulmonary specialty care program who received one-on-one coaching from Lifetime Wellness. “Through several sessions, we taught this resident breathing exercises to help her increase her lung capacity. She told us she’s doing the exercises every night now, right before she goes to bed. She’s breathing easier, sleeping better, and feeling less anxious.”

Campaigning for Wellness

Lifetime Wellness also conducts wellness campaigns throughout the year to help raise awareness of health issues. For example, September is National Falls Prevention Month, and the statistics are sobering: 50 percent of adults 80 years and older fall each year, 20 to 30 percent of seniors who fall suffer serious injury, and nearly half of seniors who fall do not resume independent living.

“Falls are a serious public health problem – and one that’s largely preventable.” Whitwell says. “We’re focused on helping seniors understand what they can do to prevent falls, from learning balance and strength exercises to making their living environment hazard free.”

In February, American Heart Month, Lifetime Wellness will focus on facts about heart disease, techniques for stress management, and the importance of exercise. “Our emphasis is on making healthy choices. Even modest changes in diet and exercise can improve heart health and lower risk by as much as 80 percent.”

Changing Course

“Americans are living longer than ever before,” Whitwell notes. “Health care literacy is increasingly critical to understanding what to expect as our bodies age.

“Staff in senior living communities are extremely busy. They’re typically short on time to organize health education programs. At Lifetime Wellness, that’s all we do. Our goal is to help those we serve age successfully – creating continuous opportunities for seniors to improve their health, well-being, and peace of mind.”