In 2011, the first wave of an estimated 78 million baby boomers hit the retirement age of 65, meaning that many Americans can now expect to live nearly twice as long as their early 19th century counterparts. While life expectancies have drastically increased over a century, concerns about the healthcare industry’s ability to keep up with an aging population have also increased.
In recent reports released by the Association of American Medical Colleges it was concluded that over the course of a decade, there won’t be nearly enough new doctors to continue providing care for the American population. The report’s findings project that by the year 2025 there will be a shortage of 61,700-94,700 doctors in the United States. Despite the fact that the healthcare industry is flush with career opportunities, doctors who are trained in geriatric care are a rare commodity. As it stands currently, baby boomers outnumber geriatric doctors 10,000 to one.
“These updated projections confirm that the physician shortage is real, it’s significant, and the nation must begin to train more doctors now if patients are going to be able to receive the care they need when they need it in the near future,” AAMC president and CEO Darrell Kirch stated.
For baby boomers, the strain of the healthcare industry is of primary concern, in and of itself. The field of gerontology is not growing quickly enough to meet their demand. Additionally, the aging baby boomer population will require increased support in a number of medical fields, including the nursing profession, mental health care, health care administration, and informal caregiving.
“All of these people are going to need more care and more services,” notes Denise R. Scruggs, director of the Beard Center on Aging at Lynchburg College. “Working in the field of gerontology is not sexy…we’re seeing a disconnect among generations, and we see stereotypes that aging is not good, and that working with old people is boring.”
This issue will only grow to be more prevalent as years go on. As of now, the U.S. federal government has no plan in place to help curb the medical workforce shortage. Additionally, a mere 35 percent of Americans have money set aside for their long-term care needs, and even fewer have spoken to their families about their preferred care needs, according to Jason Kane, a reporter for PBS.
“While the issue can be daunting in scale on the national level and difficult to confront personally, it all boils down to one thing,” according to Dr. Bruce Chernof, chair of the federal government’s recent Commission on Long-Term Care. “All of us want to age with dignity, independence, and choice. For some people, that might mean being in a nursing home because your needs are so great, that’s the best and the safest place. But for most of us, it’s about being in the homes and communities we choose, around the people that we love and circle of friends that support us.”
Fixes for long-term care in America are far from concrete, and will require a number of tweaks as the issue becomes more prevalent. Still, experts in gerontology agree that there are a number of steps America can take to move forward in years to come.
Keep Care Localized
According to Howard Gleckman, who authored the book, Caring for Our Parents, solutions to elder healthcare start with bottom-up solutions in individual communities. Gleckman centers care around a community based approach, similar to “it takes a village.”
“There’s a lot…that neighbors can do to help people live comfortable, better lives at home,” he writes. “And that’s the main idea most of these community-based programs. It may be providing transportation, it might be friendly visits. It might be meals.”
He does note however, that while these community based methods work well primarily in upper-middle-class white communities, the same design doesn’t work particularly work well in low income, minority communities.
Focus Care on Poor and Minority Communities
Over the past few decades, long-term care policies have increased exponentially for middle and upper class families. Unfortunately little state and federal funding has gained momentum for poor families and families given minority status.
Aging populations are among some of the most poor in the country, according to Dr. E. Percil Stanford. According to many sources, poverty levels among the elderly have reached levels of up to 25 percent.
“Long-term care policy developers have the challenge to design policies that ensure that poor older people, regardless of ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion, receive quality services and supports in a dignified and respectful manner,” Stanford writes. He goes on to proclaim that “A mandate of this nature becomes more urgent as the non-white population in the United States approaches a majority.”
Build National Strategy
While some communities are continuing to develop innovative systems for a multitude of demographics, comprehensive national strategy is also necessary to help the elderly remain independent and healthy in their own homes. According to Debra Whitman, that strategy should include:
Steps to ease caregiver responsibilities
Altering programs like medicaid in favor of in home care and away from government and publicly funded institutions.
Better integration of people’s personal lives, technology, and health care services available
A more streamlined financial system which enables families to pay for necessary services without essentially bankrupting themselves
While many communities have come together to provide services for their elderly communities, many states, counties, and cities have to rely on the public health funding already available. In rural areas especially, this kind of health care is out of date and places extra burden on both those receiving care, and on those who have to take care of elderly family members.
Make Healthcare a Human Right
According to Dr. Laura Gitlin, professor and founding director of the Center for Innovative Care and Aging, a major key to aiding baby boomers as they age is ensuring that long term care is a human right.
It’s a principle that other countries have put into effect. Finland for example has a government-sponsored approach to caregiving, which includes the right to long term care in their equivalent of the Bill of Rights. The U.S. would do well to approach elder care in the same regard.
From there, Gitlin argues, the U.S. has to better define what long term care actually means. Not only do seniors need access to adequate healthcare as they age, but they also need to have other fundamental social needs met, as well as the ability to engage in meaningful community activities.
As for now, the United States is far from a secure place in dealing with the impending healthcare shortage. As baby boomers continue to hit retirement age in the United States, the American healthcare system will continue to feel the pinch of a generation in need of healthcare provisions that just aren’t there yet.
Danika is a musician from Northwestern U.S., who sometimes takes a 30 minute break from feminism to enjoy a TV show. You can follow her on twitter @sadwhitegrrl