Wednesday, November 15, 2006

All American Senior Care: The Silver Tsunami

The Baby Boomers are coming...What looms for this generation?

By Andra Coberly

With a thriving post-World War II economy and soldiers returned from service, the men and women of America did their civic duty.

And they did it again and again and again.

The Baby Boom began 60 years ago when economic prosperity—as it often does—translated into a flood of offspring. By the end of the 1940s, close to 32 million babies had been born, and families of 10 were not uncommon. The “fruit of demobilization,” a term coined by the Washington Post, didn’t end until 1964. Boomer Nation was about 75 million strong—a diverse generation defined by the Vietnam War, sexual revolution and even disco.

What concerns some is that the boom of babies between 1946 and 1964 will become a tsunami of seniors in 15 to 20 years. While Boomers will be the first to tell you how active, healthy and stable they are, the aging of this generation is now considered a looming crisis.

Ten million Americans will be 85 years or older by 2030, and Larimer County’s 75 and older population is expected to surge 48 percent between 2005 and 2020. With a large number of older seniors, some expect serious strains on the programs they often rely upon.

Actually, “strain” is an understatement when describing how these masses will impact the system in 20 years—a system that includes everything from social security to dental care to congregate meals to Medicare.

“Detriment” might be more appropriate.

When one turns 75, the likelihood of being placed in a nursing home or long-term care facility increases greatly. Aging, often, leads to more medical oversight, more medication and more services from federal, state or local entities.

According to Margaret Long of the Larimer County Office on Aging, funding is currently not meeting the needs of the community’s elderly. And when Larimer County’s 75 and older population hits 19,000 in 2020—as it’s expected to do—funding will increasingly fail to help those in need.

“We must keep providing service and we must also plan for the demographics and change in numbers,” Long says. “This is the time we have to start setting the wheels in motion.”

If agencies like Department of Human Services do not plan for this senior tsunami, as Long calls it, they will not be prepared to handle the need. While it is clear that the impacts of the aging Boomer population may not be known for at least 15 to 30 years, Long and others are beginning to prepare so this tsunami doesn’t turn into a disaster.

“It’s going to be a challenge to us all,” says Jill Taylor, manager of Poudre Valley Health System’s Aspen Club, which provides educational and screenings to local seniors. “But it’s a good challenge.”

Issues beyond funding are also expected to arise. Physicians and mental health practitioners who specialize in geriatric care will be in high demand. Senior-care businesses will likely be overrun with clients. And health-care facilities will be forced to change their offerings for a generation that is not afraid to demand its morning latt├ęs and private rooms.

Largely, Baby Boomers will push the definition of what it means to be old. In fact, their maturity has been, and will continue to be, the focus of a certain amount of speculation.

“I don’t know what it will look like but I know the Boomers are not looking like status quo,” says Yvonne Myers, health systems coordinator for Columbine Health Systems.

Gary Sheldon couldn’t agree more that there is no way to pigeonhole the Baby Boomer generation.

“We’re a diverse group,” he says.

But as the 52-year-old talks about himself and his future, he realizes that he is a specimen of his generation.

“I’m the quintessential Baby Boomer, aren’t I?” he says, interrupting himself.

Sheldon is active, an enthusiastic cyclist, and he plans to stay spry and healthy into his older years. He hopes to see his grandchildren grow up, and the orthodontist feels comfortable about his plans for retirement and his aging—though he resists the term “senior.”

“It implies sedentary,” he says.

Sheldon seems to have his future set, like many his age who plan to spend their senior years traveling, doing yoga and taking bike tours of Italy.

But a large percentage of Sheldon’s generation will not be so lucky.

While several studies show the health and quality of life of older adults is steadily increasing, some worry that the growing senior population will translate into sizable numbers living in poverty, without health insurance and alone—requiring health care, nutrition, transportation and others services from government entities.

In a study by The Population Reference Bureau, two sociologists say Baby Boomers will stay employed and active longer. But, they counter, the group is also characterized by huge economic inequalities and a large population without health insurance—many Baby Boomers will be less healthy and less wealthy than seniors before them. Younger Boomers, now in midlife, have the highest poverty levels since before to World War I. Plus, there will be fewer workers contributing to endowments like Medicare and Social Security than there are now.

For Larimer County, that means that Department of Human Services and some non-profits will increasingly struggle to provide. The Office on Aging, a division of Department of Human Services, offers multiple services for the county’s elderly. Long, the program’s director, recently presented its four-year plan, the office’s predicted spending between 2007 and 2011. Simply, the budget holes over the next four years are gaping. The estimated funding shortfall for just the office’s external services could pass $200,000 by 2011.

Long considers her work on the four-year plan the start of preparation for the gigantic wave of feisty, silver-haired seniors.

“The really critical thing when looking at the Baby Boomers is to use the next eight years for planning,” she says.

The potential for a flood of seniors drives several issues for Long and others.

One is the need for more doctors and mental health specialists. Doctors will need to be aware of how medications and treatments affect aging bodies. Mental disorders such as depression and bipolar are increasingly problematic, and according to Long, “There are some real shortages in terms of practitioners who really specialize in the mental health issues of the geriatric population.”

No matter the specialty, Myers says, “if you are in the health-care business, you’ll want to like taking care of old people.”

The Baby Boomers, living longer and healthier, will post new challenges for those doctors. Finding and funding dental care—a new problem since seniors in the past largely didn’t have their teeth and required dentures—is a concern. As is learning to better treat those in their 100s, as that demographic is likely to grow.

Those who run nursing-care and assisted-living facilities expect Baby Boomers to remodel their services. Nursing-home activity directors, Myers says, will have one hell of a time pleasing the musical tastes of this generation—from The Beatles to John Fogerty to Michael Jackson. Nutrition programs, like congregate meals and fixed menus, will also need to be rethought.

“There was a woman in her 50s in here the other day and she said she would starve to death if she lived here,” Myers says. “She said she was a vegetarian, she’ll need her soy milk and tofu. I thought, ‘I’m not moving any place unless there’s an espresso machine.’”

Not all of this anticipation is treated like preparation for Armageddon.

Myers hopes the attention will bring a new appreciation for the elderly.

“It’s awesome when you’re a senior in high school,” says Myers, a Baby Boomer herself. “But not so much when you’re a senior in life. My hope is that we come to value their wisdom and value the roles that older people play.

“It’s an exciting time to be a senior,” she continues. “It’s a blank slate.

“I hope the Baby Boomers do it right.”


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