Jennifer Axelson, LCSW, CCM, MSCC, CLCP
The demographic swell of 76 million people known as the Baby Boom generation has caused significant shifts in the American landscape as it has moved through various life stages. The Baby Boom generation, now retiring at a rate of 10,000 people per day, is poised to change the way seniors live and receive care.
- The 80+ population is projected to increase by 79% by 2030. The caregiver demographic (ages 45-64) will increase in the same period by just 1%.
- In 2010, there were seven potential caregivers for every person in the high-risk 80+ years.
- By 2050, there will be only three potential caregivers for every senior in need of care.
The people shortage is simply a demographic reality. Compounding it are some societal changes that may diminish opportunities for informal support. One in three Baby Boomers is currently unmarried, meaning they may find themselves without even peer support in the future. The percentage of frail elderly who are childless is projected to rise 18% by 2030; this circumstance would seem to point to a higher likelihood of elder “orphanhood”.
Within the professional sphere, paid, professional home-based caregivers tend not to earn a great deal of money; raising the rates by which they are paid will perhaps attract more workers, but it may also cause prices to rise. In-home care could easily become too cost prohibitive for many seniors to manage.
The Good News? Baby Boomers May Age/Live a Little Differently
Given the projected shortage of both informal and professional caregivers, it is fortunate that current trends point to a delay in the need for care. Advances in health care have pushed real “old age” into later decades. It may be that modern health consciousness and medical advances will combine to postpone and shorten the Baby Boom care crisis.
Already, nursing home occupancy is down. Skilled nursing facilities were in great demand not so long ago, but the number of such facilities in America has remained steady at about 15,000 for the past ten years. By 2021, this number is expected to recede by 20 percent.
Not only are seniors benefitting from better health care and longer lifespans, but they have available to them more residential options. They can remain home with care, or they can choose an independent or assisted living community.
Baby Boomers are already inspiring change in the way such communities are marketed. The term “Continuing Care Retirement Community” has been changed to “Life Plan Community” to avoid the use of terms – like “care” and “retirement” — that don’t sit well with Baby Boomers.
Baby Boomers are triggering other changes in the way communal living is envisioned and designed:
- Memory care is undergoing some reinvention, with one pioneer in Washington designing a community whose look and feel is reminiscent of the 1950s. They are hoping to speak to the long-term memory of residents who may respond well to cues from an earlier decade in life.
- It’s expected that multi-generational housing will grow. Families may put additions on their homes or build “tiny houses” on their property so older generations can live with them and still retain some independence/separation.
- We may see an increase of senior housing in downtown areas to enable continued mobility and social connection without the attendant transportation issues.
- “Co-housing”, which borrows from the commune concept, may also catch on. A small group of seniors can live in an independent home together, share meals and housekeeping duties, and perhaps have a younger house manager on hand for assistance, where needed.
- The use of technology to support independence and improve communications will almost certainly expand.
Technology as the New Caregiver
The future looks particularly bright with respect to the ways technology can strengthen independence and enable seniors to live at home even in future eras when human caregivers may be in short supply. Japan, already beset with a crisis in elder care, is leading the charge with robotics. The Japanese government invested millions in 2013 and 2014 to advance the cause of robotic assistance for seniors:
- Paro, an electronic harp seal developed for the memory impaired, reacts to touch, chirps, plays games and dances with seniors.
- ChihiraAico is designed to resemble a 32-year-old woman and encourages the elderly to talk about their problems.
- Pepper can read and respond to human emotions. One thousand units of this model were put on the market in 2015 for $1,600 each and sold out in less than one minute.
- Encore Smart is an assisted walker that can take seniors across even rugged landscapes and Robear, a nurse in the shape of a bear, can carry a patient weighing up to 176 pounds.
- Hybrid Assistive Limbs and even full body suits are also being developed. These units stabilize and fortify the user with an exoskeleton equipped with a series of small motors. When human users attempt to move, small biosignals are read by the suit which then moves the joint and furnishes motion support.
Not surprisingly, investors see great potential in the technological marketplace. Japan expects this market to surge to a billion dollars within a few decades.
While robots continue to undergo development, lots of devices are already available in the U.S. and elsewhere that support seniors and allow family members to monitor their wellbeing from afar:
- A system called Lively enables the placement of sensors on things like pillows, the bathroom door, key chains and medication boxes. Adult children can log onto the internet and check to see if activity levels are customary or if something is out of the ordinary.
- Digital pill dispensers remind users that it’s time for medication and are locked until the appropriate time; only the correct day segment unlocks at the designated time. Adult children can monitor use via the internet.
- Motion-activated lights improve safety at night and can be programmed to remind seniors to lock the door. Smart doorbells provide a video picture of whomever has approached the front door.
- Smart security systems can be set to automatically arm security systems and lock doors.
- Smart detection devices can alert users to dangers in the kitchen, water leaks, air quality problems and even overflowing bathtubs.
Seniors today may be slower to adapt to technology given its relative novelty for them, but Baby Boomers are widely expected to embrace this brand of support more easily. Technological options may extend the period of independence and do so more affordably than human caregivers. The nationwide conversation about privacy will surely continue as people around the world weigh the importance of privacy against the appeal of independence.