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How to provide better care to the elderly

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Joanne Lynn
Joanne Lynn, MD, director of the Center for Elder Care and Advanced Illness at the Altarum Institute. She spoke at St. Olaf College March 8, 2018.
Courtesy St. Olaf College

Geriatric physician Joanne Lynn believes "we've bloated the medical care system and made the supportive care system seriously anemic." She wants to engineer a "Toyota Revolution" for elder care, and has written a book titled, "Sick to Death and Not Going to Take it Anymore!"

In a talk in Northfield at the St. Olaf Institute for Freedom and Community on March 8, Dr. Lynn said her studies show that the "rate of dying without substantial prior illness is less than 6 percent." Most of us won't die suddenly, and will be dying of conditions associated with old age.

She said we'll have twice as many frail old people in 15 years, and as a society we have much better systems set up to care for children than we have for the elderly. She says it's important to ask the questions, "how are we going to take care of one another?" and, "what are our values?"

Most home health care workers are underpaid and have no retirement savings for their own old age. Family caregivers are increasingly beset with inter-generational stress. Dr. Lynn claims that "no other country does home care this crazy way."

She recommends fundamentally changing our vision of what we're doing for the elderly. We need something comprehensive and reliable, a "care system that stays with you over time and can meet individual needs and priorities." 

Medicare was established in 1965 to cover surgery, but it doesn't cover vision, hearing, food, heat, dentistry, and other care a person may need to live a decent life. Dr. Lynn says our health care system will provide all measure of expensive medical procedures for the elderly, but almost nothing for the care and help they actually need. "We'll get you the mitral valve, but not the dinner."

Dr. Joanne Lynn is director of the Center for Elder Care and Advanced Illness at the Altarum Institute. One of the nation's first hospice physicians, she's the author of several books including "Sick to Death and Not Going to Take it Anymore!," "The Handbook for Mortals," and "MediCaring Communities: How to Get What we Want and Need in Frail Old Age at an Affordable Price."