Back to the Future of Aging By Carol Zernial

Carol-PR-Photo-10-1-11-SMALLERFor the past 30 years, professionals who work with the elderly and with caregivers have been preparing for the aging of the baby boomers, the 74 million people who are now turning 65 at a rate of 10,000 every day. It’s time to go back to that future of aging and see if we are indeed ready. What did we get right over the past 30 years? What do we need to rethink? And what is new that we need to consider?

First, our concern about the lack of retirement savings for upcoming seniors and boomers was well founded. The Insured Retirement Institute says that only 55% of boomers have any dedicated retirement savings besides Social Security. Of these, most have less than $100,000 saved, which averages only $7,000 a year for an average retirement of 20 years. Can most of us get by on only $7,000 a year? The financial status of aging boomers may be the defining issue of this generation, impacting policy, eligibility, and effectively ending the school-work- retirement life cycle. As well-known gerontologist Ken Dychtwald has been saying, older people will want to continue working and many will need to continue working. This shift may go beyond the older generations. As younger people reject the notion of longer work hours and strive for work/life balance, voluntary episodic work could reshape our society.

Equally important is the fact that we still don’t have a comprehensive long-term services and supports system. As an example, five members of my family currently live in residential care facilities at a cost of $32,900/month or $394,800/year. With our combined family resources, we can’t afford this for five people. The 100% private pay or 100% public pay system is unsustainable.

We must address the extremely low wages paid to working caregivers to ensure we have an adequate and capable Care Force for these millions of boomers. They are predicted to be less healthy and more costly to the health care system over the next 14 years than the previous generation (United Health Foundation). Half of all direct care workers rely on Medicaid and food stamps. Their pay is as low as $16,240/year to take care of our families, and their own. Unpaid family caregiving as the backbone of our long-term care system also takes a heavy toll. The average woman who stops working to care for a family member loses $303,000 in wages and benefits over the course of her lifetime.

So what do we need to rethink? Leo Buscaglia, the author and speaker who used to tell us to hug each other often, once said that the words “and they lived happily ever after” are the most tragic words in all of literature. In our American culture, “helping seniors remain independent in their own homes” may be our tragedy. A recent study of 3 million people conducted by Brigham Young University now says that loneliness and isolation are the new smoking, and that social isolation can be a more powerful predictor of heart attack and stroke than high blood pressure or obesity. And, a person who feels lonely is at as high of a risk as someone who actually lives alone without social interaction. Is our push to help people remain isolated behind the walls of our homes causing greater disease, disability, and unhappiness in our older years?

We also need to rethink traditional aging services as provided by the Older Americans Act. Boomers and seniors expect consumer-focused services and choice. The inflexibility of the current system does not serve us well. The middle class also suffers under the current system. People with very low incomes have access to Medicaid and are eligible for services, and people with higher incomes can pay for their own. Familes in the lower middle class are not eligible and can’t afford to pay. They are almost literally a dying breed.

If we look at the new possibilities that exist, technology is the new frontier. Smart phone technology is the most rapidly adopted technology in the history of the world. It may be able to foster interaction and help people to access the services they need from wherever they are. We don’t want to lose in-person interaction, but the ability to access tailored goods, services, social interaction and entertainment in the palm of our hands is a game changer.

We know the future hasn’t been written yet. The doom and gloom scenario that seniors and boomers will drain the resources of the country is only a possibility if nothing changes – and things are already changing. We know the secret: the increase in older people has the potential to be an increase in time, talent and resources that can go to help so many of societies issues. Long life is a gift to be discovered and used to advantage.

We have a short window to plan our glide path to the future of aging and caregiving right now. Or, as Yogi Berra once said,” If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up some place else.”

Carol Zernial is Executive Director of the non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation. A noted gerontologist, Ms. Zernial also serves as Chair of the National Council on Aging Board of Directors.