Although the state's residents fare well in a new report, older Washingtonians still face challenges to their overall health.
UnitedHealthcare ranked states in its tenth annual America's Health Rankings Senior Report, placing Washington at number eight. Among its strengths is a lower early death rate than most states, but barriers include a severe housing shortage in the state.
Joseph Irons, president of Irons Brothers Construction in Shoreline and board president of the Building Industry Association of Washington, said older people need more accommodations in their housing.
"Typically, they're going to need a rambler house, something with less steps in it," Irons observed. "The availability of housing being short in general makes it tough and the housing that's going to be more adaptable or feasible or visible for someone to live in, in their older age, is going to be even less available."
The UnitedHealthcare report found nationally the number of older people reporting very good or excellent health increased significantly between 2011 and 2020. However, the rate of early deaths has gone up after years of declining because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Irons pointed out there are a lot of pressures on the building industry right now, making it hard to build enough affordable housing to address demand. The industry is struggling, like others, to find enough workers. He also noted the cost of building is 30% higher than it was last year.
"One thing for certain is labor, materials go up every year," Irons emphasized. "Every day, week, month longer in permitting's just adding to the end cost of the end user. So, the more efficient they can get with permitting, the [more] cost savings the end user can have."
One of the most disturbing trends is the rising rate of drug deaths. Rates are up 64% in Washington for people 65 and older from numbers a decade ago. Suicide rates are also up.
Dr. Rhonda Randall, chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare employer and individual, said the troubling signs are evident across the country.
"A lot of people may think that seniors are not part of the problem that we're seeing with mental health and drug overdoses and suicides," Randall noted. "But in fact with the drug deaths, the seniors were one of the groups that had the highest rate of increase."
In the organization's ranking, Utah ranked highest. Mississippi ranked last.
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