When David McCanna lost his wife two years ago he became a hermit, he explained, as he prepared to call out the numbers for a round of bingo Friday at the Merced Senior Community Center.
The 84-year-old Atwater resident said he felt isolated and depressed. He knew that to keep his mind busy, he needed to socialize, something he is now able to do during his visits to the senior centers in Merced and Atwater.
Staying active, he said, helped improve his health.
“I feel a lot better, and I’m not as depressed as I was before,” McCanna said. “It sure beats staying at home all day.”
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While McCanna is showing improvement, many California seniors are battling an increasing number of days in which they deal with depression and other mental health issues, according to a recent report.
The report, which ranks states based on several health markers, named California the 29th healthiest state for seniors, a drop of 11 spots from last year’s position.
According to America’s Health Rankings Senior Report, Vermont is the healthiest state for seniors. New Hampshire and Minnesota came in second and third, respectively. Louisiana was named the least healthy state for older adults.
Dr. Jeff Mason, a senior medical director with UnitedHealthcare, the company responsible for putting together the rankings, said the report is compiled using data from a number of government agencies and does not reflect individual health but rather key trends in care.
California’s strengths in senior health, as listed in the report, are a low prevalence of obesity, a low prevalence of physical inactivity and a low prevalence of full-mouth tooth extraction.
The report lists the state’s key challenges in senior health as: a high prevalence of chronic drinking, many poor mental health days and a low enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP, or CalFresh in California.
“Many poor mental health days,” Mason explained, refers to days when people are unable to engage in normal day activities due to problems linked to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Although the report does not provide regional or county information, based on 2013 data, UnitedHealthcare estimates that seniors, 65 or older, make up about 10.2 percent of the population in Merced County.
“It is pretty well known that the Central Valley is not very affluent compared to some coastal counties,” Mason said, “and there is a link between poverty and health.”
“Areas like Merced, Fresno and Tulare have the decks stacked against them,” he added.
In Merced County, the push for mental health services for seniors has resulted in programs such as PEARLS, which stands for Program to Encourage Active, Rewarding Lives for Seniors, among others.
Alexandra Pierce, the deputy director of adult and aging services in Merced County, said that the goal of programs like PEARLS is to help seniors who are having problems with isolation and depression. The services include providing one-on-one counseling and connecting them with appropriate care providers.
“It is not a secret that senior programs are significantly underfunded, but we’re addressing their issues,” Pierce said. “The programs that we have in place work.”
Mason explained that California’s drop in rank is also due in part to the unfavorable outcomes in trends dealing with nutrition. The low number of seniors who are enrolling in SNAP, for example, is a reflection of that, he said. According to the report, the rate at which seniors are enrolling in this program is much slower than the rates in other states.
“We think that a lot more seniors may qualify but they don’t request it or don’t sign up for it ... some may be embarrassed to sign up because they see it as a handout,” Mason said.
Mary Ellen Arana, a deputy director with Merced County’s Human Services Agency, said the low number of SNAP enrollment reported in California may have to do with the fact that many seniors do not qualify for CalFresh when they enroll in any other supplemental nutrition programs.
Margaret Wamach, 88, of Merced said that although she has heard of CalFresh, she has never attempted to enroll in the program. Warmach, who is diabetic and has to watch what she eats, said she relies on the help she receives from food banks.
Lupe Cisneros, a staff services analyst at HSA, said the agency does community outreach to educate seniors about the services available to them and enroll them if they qualify. Through their outreach efforts, agency workers have noticed that seniors are usually good about following their doctor’s instructions.
“They listen to what their doctor tells them to eat or not to eat,” Cisneros said. “And most want to be active.”
Other nationwide key findings
- More seniors received the flu shot compared with last year, rising from 60.1 percent to 62.8 percent
- 37.6 percent of seniors have four or more chronic conditions
- 8.7 percent of seniors smoke
- 16.1 percent of seniors have had all their teeth removed due to tooth decay or gum disease