Dr. Katherine Thompson explains the particular barriers to health care for elderly people on the South Side and how SHARE Network is trying to meet their needs.
By Pat Nabong
This spring at City Bureau, our photojournalism fellow is visually exploring aging on the South Side from a health perspective.
Access to health care on the South Side looks starkly different from that of other areas in Chicago. As one of the most medically underserved communities in the U.S., according to the University of Chicago, this difference is particularly magnified among the elderly.
On the South Side, “the number of older adults living below the poverty line is twice the national average and seven of the eight poorest neighborhoods in Chicago are within UCM’s primary service area on the South Side,” the U. of C. report says, adding that this problem is exacerbated by a shortage of geriatricians nationwide. Illinois in particular only had 300 certified geriatricians in 2016, compared to the recommended 762 geriatricians, a number based on the state’s 1.8 million seniors (65 and older) in 2015, according to the American Geriatrics Society.
South Side Healthy Aging Resource Experts (SHARE) Network, an organization that caters to seniors on the South Side, is trying to change that by educating and training medical professionals, community members and seniors on the specialized health needs of older adults. Funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration, part of Illinois’s Department of Health and Human Services, SHARE Network has been around for three years now.
Dr. Katherine Thompson, SHARE Network’s program director and a geriatrician who works at the University of Chicago’s Outpatient Senior Health Center in South Shore, talked about the needs of the elderly and how SHARE Network is trying to improve their access to health care.
What does SHARE Network do?
We educate health care professionals like medical students, nurses, physical therapy students, physician assistants, et cetera, about how to take good care of older adults.
There’s a lot of primary care providers in the community who don’t have specialized geriatric training. We do primary care provider series that aims to teach a little bit more of that skill set to primary care providers who are practicing at federally qualified health centers and in private clinics across the South Side.
The other part of our project is educating and helping support community members like their caregivers, loved ones or people who are involved in their lives. We also directly educate older adults in the community through healthy aging lecture series, which happen at regular intervals. Older adults can just come in. They’re free. We provide transportation and they can learn more about specific topics, like hearing impairment or about heart health. Those occur at a variety of locations across the South Side. We have, on average, about one per week.
We also partner with community-based organizations. We just finished a pilot series where we partnered with faith-based organizations on the South Side of Chicago, which we’re looking to expand. That’s where a lot of older adults go for their socialization, community support and religious needs. Instead of having many smaller isolated organizations who are taking on one small piece of the puzzle helping to support older adults, we’re trying to create connections so that we’re sharing resources.
What are the unique health care needs of seniors on the South Side?
There are some specific, disease-based indicators that are different for folks on the South Side. They tend to get immunized at lower rates for things like flu and pneumonia, so there’s a higher risk of developing those. They tend to get screened less often for things like colon cancer. They tend to have higher rates of diabetes.
Are there common medical or non-medical concerns that you’ve encountered among this population?
I think the common challenges for people are social isolation and then cognitive and/or physical decline and that really brings down quality of life, when you can’t get out and continue to go to church, bingo, bowling, see your family, whatever it is that brings meaning and purpose to your life. Likewise, if you’re used to being active and now you have terrible arthritis or for health reasons can’t take care of yourself and you become dependent on other people, I think that’s the other thing that really impairs health and quality of life.
Does SHARE Network cater to specific neighborhoods on the South Side?
The South Side is not one homogenous block, right? There’s lots of different sort of pockets, cultures and needs within different neighborhoods. We have partners in various South Side neighborhoods and we identified that there’s different needs based on the neighborhood. That being said, we pretty much have touched most of the South Side in one way or another. We certainly have hubs that we’re more focused on.
According to the University of Chicago, the South Side is one of the most medically underserved communities in the U.S. Why?
It’s just harder to find health care providers in general. There’s more folks living below the poverty line. There’s less access to care because a lot of the safety net hospitals have closed.
The primary care provider ratio per population is lower on the South Side of Chicago than it is in the city in general. If you exclude Hyde Park, where a lot of the health care centers [are] because of the University of Chicago, it’s even lower. It’s about half of the Chicago average if you take U. of C. out of the picture. Of course, most older adults have insurance because they qualify for Medicare but even so, if you’re living below the poverty line, it’s still difficult to afford and pay for health care. Seniors tend to have more health conditions, so it’s just magnified in that population.
Based on what you’ve seen and the elderly whom you’ve talked to, what does aging look like on the South Side?
Aging looks different for every person, so there’s a lot of people who are aging beautifully and are truly [an] inspiration on the South Side of Chicago. I lead with that because it’s easy to sort of say, “Oh, it’s all bad news and it’s all challenges.” But so many of my patients, even if they don’t have access to a lot of resources or don’t have a lot of money, are aging very well. I think the people who age well have some kind of purpose in their lives or something that brings them meaning and they tend to be people who have been able to stay active.