MAHEC’s Center for Healthy Aging

MAHEC was established in 1974 and is a leader in healthcare, education, and innovation. Located in Asheville, MAHEC serves a 16-county region in Western North Carolina and is one of nine Area Health Education Centers in North Carolina. MAHEC’s mission is to recruit, train and retain the workforce needed to create a healthy North Carolina with a focus on primary care in rural communities and those with less access to resources.

Just one year after launching a home-based primary care (HBPC) pilot, the Center for Healthy Aging at the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC) and community partners are more than doubling the program’s capacity. This expansion is possible thanks to support from the Deerfield Charitable Foundation, WNC Bridge Foundation, and faculty support from UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy and geriatric specialists in the Department of Family Medicine at UNC School of Medicine.

The Center recently received gifts and grants totaling nearly $450,000 to increase its regional impact through capacity building and initiatives that include team-based home visits for up to 125 WNC residents. Current HBPC program participants are MAHEC patients 50 years of age or older at risk of hospitalization or placement in long-term care or who have complex health conditions that make independent living difficult without a higher level of care management.

“We’re thrilled to support MAHEC’s Center for Healthy Aging as it strives to create sustainable healthcare programs for our aging population here in Western North Carolina,” shared Michelle Wooley, Director of Philanthropy at the Deerfield Charitable Foundation. “We know the Center’s leadership will pave the way for innovative and compassionate elder care. Deerfield’s concern for the welfare of older adults drew us to this effort. Knowing that our investment will make a difference is very important to us and to our residents. We are excited to see the impact from the programs being developed.”

The Deerfield Charitable Foundation is giving the Center $330,000 over the next three years to support the development of a robust infrastructure that will transform the way MAHEC cares for older adults. WNC Bridge Foundation continues to support the Center’s delivery of home-based primary care services through a second IMPACT Grant totaling $100,000.

“WNC Bridge Foundation’s roots are in the care and well-being of our elderly population,” explained Scott Buchanan, president and CEO. “Continuing to support the work of MAHEC and their community partners as they reimagine not only how healthcare of older adults is delivered in Western North Carolina, but the type of care they receive, will have a positive lasting impact for this often overlooked population.”

The Center for Healthy Aging’s co-directors William McLean, MD, and Tasha Woodall, PharmD, have identified three aims to guide their work: enhanced geriatric education for WNC healthcare providers, community partnerships, and clinical innovation. “The incredible generosity of these gifts and grants gives us the opportunity to mature our programs, prove the value of interdisciplinary partnerships, and improve the well-being of older adults in Western North Carolina,” noted McLean.

The Center is committed to increasing the pipeline of clinical providers who care for older adults, particularly those of color. It is working to expand its model of home-based primary care to create a roadmap for rural communities to enhance services for older residents. The Center is also exploring innovative prevention programs and solutions for affordable housing and higher quality, lower cost healthcare.

This support couldn’t come soon enough for WNC residents who tend to be older and have fewer financial resources and more complex health conditions. Statewide, there are more North Carolinians over the age of 65 than under 18. Nationally, the number of adults over the age of 65 is expected to increase by 72 percent in the next 20 years. The number of Americans 85 and older is projected to increase by 132 percent.

Healthcare pioneer Suzanne Landis, MD, founded the Center in 2012. To date, the Center’s educational programs have supported more than 250 clinicians, aging services providers, and older adults from across the region and state. Last January with the support of WNC Bridge Foundation, the Center piloted a HBPC program that supported 50 at-risk patients.

“The main goal of home-based primary care is to keep patients in their homes and as independent as possible,” Woodall explained. “If we don’t bridge the gap in services to help older adults age according to their wishes, who will?” Woodall said.

This innovative model of care consists of a physician or nurse practitioner and a pharmacist who perform an initial health assessment and provide ongoing in-home medical care. The team includes an occupational therapist, community resource specialist, care manager, and a YMCA liaison who can assist with home delivery of fresh food, nutritional counseling, and enrollment in chronic disease management and falls prevention programs. An occupational therapist conducts safety and functional home assessments and can provide therapeutic services, if needed. The program’s community resource specialist connects patients and their caregivers to Council on Aging resources, and a care manager from Mission Health Partners works with all team members to ensure patients’ medical, social, and behavioral health needs are met.

Preliminary results are promising. HBPC participants are making significant progress toward achieving self-determined goals that include reducing health complications and improving quality of life through improved health and social support.

“I would have been in dire straits,” one pilot participant admitted. “I couldn’t get to a primary care physician because my injury had me bed bound. Had it not been for them being able to come into my home, I would never have gotten the attention that I needed.”

Thanks to strong community partnerships, more older adults in WNC will be able to access this same life-enhancing care.