WORCESTER – The generation that created fast food, cellphones and Google – the baby boom generation – is about to hit another cultural milestone: becoming “the older old.”
At a panel discussion on caregiving for aging baby boomers, held at Clark University Wednesday night, moderator Robert Dwyer, executive director of Central Massachusetts Agency on Aging, told the audience that the demographic tsunami that is the generation born between 1946 and 1964 is about to change the way we live in old age and care for those around us who are elderly.
The program was sponsored by Clark University’s School of Professional Studies and the Central Massachusetts Agency on Aging.
There are 76 million baby boomers in the United States, Mr. Dwyer said. In 2021, just four years away, they’ll start turning 75, which he said is when “people really are beginning to show aging characteristics.”
There’s more disability, more frailty, more health care needs and, as friends and family move on or pass away, “Your world gets smaller,” Mr. Dwyer said.
But he noted that just because the don’t-trust-anyone-over-30 generation will soon be in their 70s, 80s and 90s, it doesn’t mean baby boomers will change what they want.
“Baby boomers want our needs filled fast,” Mr. Dwyer said. “Essentially we want results ... And that’s going to have implications for all of us.”
He challenged the audience and panelists to consider how society is going to provide products, services and communities that accommodate an aging population, built around innovation and technology, and that is consumer-driven and focused on safety and security.
The cost of caregiving is significant. According to information provided by Fallon Health, a caregiver on average spends 18 hours on caregiving a week. Yet 56 percent of caregivers are employed full time. Caregivers miss an additional 6.6 days of work a year and their productivity drops 18.5 percent.
Caregivers spend an average of $5,531 on caregiving costs. The annual average cost to employers, from lost productivity and absenteeism, is $2,110.
Nationally, $33.6 billion is lost annually in productivity, according to AARP.
Despite the challenges of aging and caring for older adults, it's not all bleak.
“Being 75 now is a great time to be old,” Kate Salmon-Robinson, director of marketing communications and community relations at SALMON Health and Retirement, said one senior woman told her.
Advances in telemedicine and consumer-focused services such as MinuteClinics have improved how people who aren’t as mobile as they used to be get care.
She encouraged people caring for a senior to get that person an iPad that will allow them to connect to health monitoring apps with their physician, as well as communicate with far-flung family through Skype and Facebook, and keep up on the news.
She also encouraged looking at the growing role of outcomes data, which are driving the health care delivery system now, and to think of working with a primary care physician as a consumer.
Greg Giuliano, executive director of Montachusett Home Care Corp., said resources were still a problem and elder services providers still are trying to “make services we provide more accessible to more people.”
He called for advocacy with state and federal lawmakers to invest more in home care. A recent Care Transitions Project demonstration showed that hospital re-admission rates for Medicare-covered patients with chronic illness could be reduced to 14 percent from 30 percent without the additional home supports.
Mr. Guiliano said we need to convince health care providers, too, “There really is a strong role in medicine for social services.”
“Many people end up going to a nursing home because they can’t afford services at home,” said Debbie Gitner, a social worker and co-owner of Eldercare Resource Services and vice president of the New England Regional Chapter of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers.
She said the current health care payment system under Medicare needs to be updated, so that, for example, three nights of hospitalization aren’t required before someone gets rehabilitation facility care covered.
“Nobody grows up thinking, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a caregiver,’ ” said Laura Black Silver, a social worker and caregiving specialist at Tri-Valley Inc. But for many, “It will become part of your life.”
She encouraged young adults to think about “how to have a quality of life at the age of 93.”
Opportunities could be found in exploring housing, safety systems, communication devices, transportation, physical activity and lifelong learning that meet the needs of a diverse, aging population, according to Ms. Silver.
One audience member, who identified herself as a millennial, asked why someone in her generation should go into elder care as a profession.
Ms. Silver said even those not directly involved in caregiving could find rewarding and innovative careers looking at housing design, app development - such as those for medication management and care coordination - and other necessities.
“If you’re interested in business and technology, this is the population you’re aiming at,” Ms. Silver said.
Ms. Gitner spoke of the rewards of talking to seniors about their lives and working with them and their families to help solve problems.
“You can make a difference in people’s lives,” said Ms. Salmon-Robinson, who is among the third generation of a family business.
John Chetro-Szivos, associate dean of the School of Professional Studies, said Clark is considering adding a master’s degree program in elder services. It offers master’s programs in professional communication, public administration and information technology.