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Helping older adults in Western North Carolina ‘Age Well’

If you want a powerful example of how community collaboration can enrich lives, look no further than Appalachian State University’s Aging Well initiative.

The name pretty much says it all: The program focuses on providing support to help older adults live better and longer. What I find so exciting is how the program gets results by strategically deploying local resources to deliver comprehensive care, education, and social connection. This work might’ve started in Boone, but its impact now reaches far beyond the High Country. 

Driven by cross-sectional and intergenerational partnership, Aging Well is helping parents and grandparents – beloved neighbors and co-workers, too – maintain quality of life as they move through the aging process. 

And, at some point and in some way, it will likely make life better for you, too.

A whole-person approach to well-being

By harnessing faculty, students, and resources from across several App State programs, Aging Well provides a variety of services, including cognitive, balance, and nutritional assessments. It also offers educational programming that brings participants together to learn about topics ranging from nutrition, fall prevention, cognitive health, online safety, and more. 

The program design prioritizes making these and other services easily accessible. App State’s campuses in Boone and Hickory are hubs for much of the activity, but programming also takes place at local senior centers and libraries. Aging assessments get sent to the participant’s primary care provider, and a social worker follows up to help address any other needs, such as those related to housing or food insecurity. 

All of this minimizes the need for participants to travel to off-site locations. That’s especially important to a population that’s more likely to face difficulties driving themselves, in a region where resources are spread far and wide and there are few options for public transportation.

An all-ages salve for social isolation

Older adults aren’t the only ones who benefit from this work. The more I’ve learned about the program, the more I’m moved by the significance of the way it brings together 2 populations at different stages in life.

Students from the university’s nursing, public health, exercise science, nutrition and foods, speech therapy, and other disciplines make Aging Well tick. Many of them face challenges similar to those of the older adults they’re helping. College students don’t always have access to reliable transportation, which can make it difficult to find or take advantage of off-campus opportunities for professional development. By hosting clinics and assessments right on campus, Aging Well lowers barriers to life-changing experiential learning opportunities that are so important to academic and professional success.

Perhaps less obviously, Aging Well breaks down social and generational divides, bringing together the 2 age groups that are most prone to feelings of loneliness, according to a recent, widely reported study published in Psychological Science. By creating opportunities for young adults to interact with and support senior citizens, Aging Well promotes social connectedness and cultivates a shared sense of purpose – and that can help everyone involved minimize feelings of social isolation.

A whole-community approach to problem-solving

The Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) team first learned about Aging Well when our “Extra Miles Tour” of all 100 North Carolina counties took us to Boone. When we heard about this collaboration between the university’s Appalachian Institute for Health and Wellness, the High Country Area Agency on Aging, and a growing number of other community partners, we recognized the importance of the program’s whole-person, whole-community approach to care in the High Country. 

Because Aging Well aligns so closely with our own mission-driven purpose to improve the health and well-being of our communities, we quickly resolved to fund Aging Well’s expansion into the Catawba Valley, delivered through App State’s new Hickory campus.

Today, Aging Well directly serves 10 counties, including Watauga, Ashe, Alleghany, Avery, Yancey, Mitchell, Wilkes, Burke, Catawba, and Caldwell counties. This region is mostly rural; several of the counties have populations fewer than 20,000. App State’s program plays a significant role in improving access to health and wellness resources.

But another impact of the program reaches across the state: The initiative is also growing the state’s health care workforce. Data show that the vast majority of those who graduate from the university’s health sciences programs affiliated with Aging Well ultimately choose to stay and work in North Carolina, filling critical needs. More than 10,000 are scattered across the state, serving in practically every county.

Reflecting the program’s widening influence, Aging Well hosted its first conference in May, bringing together caregivers, providers, and other stakeholders from throughout the region. Building connectedness was the essence of what made the conference such a powerful testament to all that’s possible when people, organizations, and communities find new ways to work together. 

Creating a healthier, stronger North Carolina requires thoughtful and sustained collaboration – and that’s what Aging Well is all about.


 

This is a modified version of an op-ed originally published in The Hickory Daily Record.

authors photo

Angela Boykin

Angela Boykin

CEO of the Blue Cross NC Healthy Blue Medicaid Plan

As CEO of Blue Cross NC Healthy Blue Medicaid Plan, Angela's areas of expertise include regulatory compliance, operational excellence, strategic planning and analysis, risk management, and new business development. This combination of skills helped her develop deep-rooted health insurance industry knowledge and made her uniquely qualified to lead our quest to enter North Carolina’s evolving Medicaid market.

When not at work, she enjoys volunteering at her sons’ schools, cheering from the sidelines at their baseball games, and reading 3 or 4 books at the same time. She also enjoys writing her own blog focusing on parenting kids from high school through their college years.

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