Go Local: 7 Community-Based Services to Boost Your Health

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When you think of ways to improve your health, it's easy to go straight to eating healthier or exercising more. But do you ever think about how your community can help you reach your health goals? The services and programs that can make the biggest difference in your health are often right in your neighborhood.

Sure, your community has gyms and urgent care centers. But it also has so much more to enhance your well-being. Check out this list of common community resources to learn all the ways they can help improve your health. Then see what resources and programs are available in your community.

Community centers

Whether you're looking to meet new people, get active, learn something new, or all of the above, check out your community center. They offer an array of activities to improve your physical, mental, and social health, like group fitness classes, concerts and performances, game nights, and group educational classes and clubs (like a sewing or film club). They may even offer trips to local museums and other cultural hotspots. Some of these activities could be offered free of charge. Check with your local community center to learn more about the specific activities they offer and their costs.

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Local care teams

If you're managing a chronic condition, like diabetes or heart disease, a local care team can make all the difference in your health. Local care teams — also called community health teams or care networks — are multi-disciplinary teams made up of health care professionals like doctors, nurse field care managers, pharmacists, dietitians, social workers, community health educators, and behavioral health specialists who live in your community. They work together — and directly with you — to help you manage your health and break down any barriers that are keeping you from reaching your health goals.

"[Local care teams] are focused on providing holistic care, so we're not just looking at your immediate health, but also your financial and living situations, too, because those also impact your health," says Marcy Lawrence, a registered nurse and field care manager for Aetna Community Care, a local care team program offered by Aetna.

Field care managers like Lawrence will first meet you in your home to learn more about you and your health goals. Then, they'll help connect you with the right local care team and health and social services in your community to get you the personalized care you need.

"Having a local team with nurses, social workers, and other health care professionals who are part of your community, who may go to the same church or supermarket as you, can make all the difference in getting the right services and support for your individual needs," says Heidi Hamm, MBA, BSN, RN, CCM, and director of clinical health services for Aetna Community Care.

Some Medicare Advantage plans may offer local care team programs at no extra cost. Call your plan to find out the specific benefits available to you and whether you qualify for a local care team.

Community-based sports leagues

Want to get active but the gym just isn't your style, or isn't convenient? Check online or go to your local community center to find out if any adult or senior sports leagues are offered. Whether you crave the one-on-one competition of racquetball or the teamwork of basketball, getting involved in sports leagues are good for your physical, social, and mental health. Just remember to talk to your doctor before participating in any new type of physical activity.

Farmers markets

Whether you live in a city, in the country, or on the shore, you'll probably be able to find a farmers market in your community — and that's great news for your health and your taste buds. Farmers markets sell high-quality fresh produce from farms right in or near your community. So you know exactly where your food is coming from. Plus, farm-fresh food is packed with nutrients and tends to taste a lot better than supermarket produce.

You can check online, look around your town for advertisements, or ask your local chamber of commerce to find your closest farmers markets.

Volunteer programs

Helping others helps you, too. When you participate in a volunteer program within your community, it can benefit your physical and emotional health. In fact, according to a 2017 study, people over the age of 65 who volunteered had overall lower rates of depression. Because volunteering makes you feel good, in addition to keeping you moving and meeting new people.

Keep in mind, you don't have to spend hours of your time to benefit from volunteering. Just 45 minutes at your local soup kitchen or animal shelter once a week can make a world of difference for your community and your health.

Nutrition services

If you're recovering from surgery or a long-term illness, it can be difficult to get the nutrition you need to fully recover and get back to normal. This is where local meal-delivery services can help. They'll provide nutritious meals right to your door, so you can get the nutrition you need to build up your strength — without having to worry about grocery shopping or cooking. Some Medicare Advantage plans may offer a meal-delivery service as a benefit or help cover the costs associated with these services. Call your plan for specific details.

Transportation services

Attending your doctor's appointments and other wellness-related appointments is important for your health, but if you've stopped driving or are unable to drive due to an illness or injury, getting to these appointments can be difficult. Your community's transportation service(s) can help.

If you live in a city, you may have public transportation services, like buses and trains, available to you. Senior discounts on tickets for these services are often offered, so check with your community's public transportation company to see if you qualify. You'll also want to check with your doctor before taking public transportation to make sure it's safe.

If your community doesn't offer public transportation or if you aren't able to use those services, other options may be available:

Volunteer driver programs: Many local faith-based and nonprofit organizations often have a network of volunteers who offer flexible transportation to doctor's appointments and recreational activities like shopping. These programs may be free, or work on a suggested-donation basis, through membership dues, or for a minimal cost.

Paratransit service: This type of transportation service offers door-to-door or curb-to-curb transportation using mini-buses or small vans (vehicles for fewer than 25 passengers). Reduced fares for this service are offered for older adults and people with disabilities, and some providers may operate on a donation basis. You have to make a reservation when using a paratransit service.

Transportation vouchers programs: Vouchers may be used to pay for services from a participating transportation provider like public transportation, volunteer programs, or taxis and other private companies. You have to apply for these programs and are responsible for reserving and securing the services you need.

If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, it may help connect you with community transportation services. Call your plan to find out if this benefit is offered.

You've done a lot for your community over the years, so it's important to recognize what it can do for you and your health in return. Visit your town's website or conduct a general online search to find out all the services your community offers. Remember to check your Medicare plan, too, to see if it can help connect you with these services or help cover their costs.

Rachel Quetti is a health care writer at Aetna with experience in senior wellness, Medicare, commercial health care, and consumer engagement. When Rachel isn't trying out new fitness classes, she is cooking up fun, (mostly) healthy recipes in the kitchen. Rachel lives in Watertown, Massachusetts and has a degree in journalism from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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