A new state-level commission will promote healthy aging in communities across New Hampshire. Three critical elements helped make it happen.
Last July brought groundbreaking change to New Hampshire. Building upon the work of a small committee that once served as the official voice for older residents, the state launched the N.H. Commission on Aging.
This new commission will play a key role in conversations about aging in community and in bringing matters related to aging and older people to lawmakers’ attention. It’s a big step and one that’s been a long time coming. “New Hampshire lacked funding and a cohesive approach,” said Jennifer Rabalais, co-director at the University of N.H.’s Center on Aging and Community Living (CACL). “There’s emerging infrastructure now.”
The shift from local attention on resource needs to a statewide commitment is an encouraging sign of progress – particularly in a mostly rural state with a ethos of “live free or die.”
The N.H. Alliance for Healthy Aging (NHAHA) – more than 300 participants representing 190+ organizations and/or groups across the Granite State – played a pivotal role in getting the Commission on Aging off the ground. Funded primarily by the Endowment for Health, it is the largest entity of its kind in the state and has been the leading voice for healthy aging in New Hampshire in recent years.
Older People + Advocacy + Big Data
But they didn’t do it alone. A coalition of partners was instrumental in this success.
“This was really the quintessential collaboration,” said Rabalais. “People were working together through NHAHA. An advocacy training program mobilized older people across the state. And data was available to bolster the case.”
The Senior Leadership Series, a collaboration between the Center on Aging and Community Living, AARP NH and Dartmouth Centers for Health and Aging, creates a corps of advocates ready to raise awareness about the growing needs of New Hampshire’s older people. Graduates of this series become part of the Senior Leadership Alumni Network (SLAN) where they take the skills they learn into their communities.
New and compelling data from the 2019 NH Healthy Aging Data Report highlighted the strengths and needs of the state’s towns and cities. The report, developed by the University of Massachusetts Boston McCormack Graduate School’s Gerontology Institute and funded by Tufts Health Plan Foundation, gave advocates more data to inform their work.
“There was great interest by the alumni network when the Healthy Aging Data Report launched in the spring of 2019,” Rabalais said. “It wasn’t just taking the report out into communities but sharing the data to advance their work.”
The timing, it turned out, was perfect. Backed by brilliant behind-the-scenes advocacy work from N.H. Legal Assistance and New Futures, NHAHA hosted a breakfast for state legislators, seeing it as an ideal forum for launching the Healthy Aging Data Report. Trained ambassadors from NHAHA and SLAN shared detailed profiles for every city and town with the legislators, plus stories from their communities.
“The ambassadors sat down with the reps, laptops in hand, and showed legislators what was happening in their communities,” Rabalais said. “The reps found it very helpful to understand what the data means. It was truly a collaborative effort in the richest sense of the word.”
Steep But Steady Climb
As the second-oldest state in the nation, New Hampshire has a vested interest in keeping its aging population healthy – economic impact. Based on 2018 census data, 20% of the state’s population is age 60 or older. That’s just north of 300,000 residents, according to the Healthy Aging Data Report. With average incomes above $50,000 in cities and towns, New Hampshire’s residents represent a valuable state asset.
Additionally, New Hampshire is largely rural, with nearly 40% of the state’s population living in rural areas where incomes dip to between $20,000 and $49,000. What’s more, the fastest-growing segment of the state’s aging population is over 85.
And while New Hampshire ranks among the nation’s healthiest states, its rural communities have high serious chronic disease rates and lack access to basic services like transportation, housing and health care. The new commission is focused on addressing the needs of the state’s evolving demographics.
Rock Solid Backbone
Rabalais sees growing potential to use the data report to help communities and advocates spot trends and disparities in other states. “Massachusetts and Rhode Island have a companion report and researchers at UMass Boston are working on the first-ever report for Connecticut, funded by Tufts Health Plan Foundation,” she said.
Looking ahead to 2020, New Hampshire’s newly formed Commission on Aging has a big job to do. But, as Rabalais stresses once more, it also has rock-solid support.
“It’s a proud state at the community level,” said Rabalais. “People are really excited to see such a strong spirit of collaboration. They are enthusiastic about the possibilities.”
Photos Courtesy of the New Hampshire Alliance for Healthy Aging.