The face of America is changing. To be exact, it’s aging, and at a more rapid pace than ever before. An unprecedented number of older adults, better known as baby boomers, are retiring and needing more healthcare than previous generations. The American population over the age of 65 years is projected to almost double between 2018 and 2060, which means we will go from 52 million older adults to 95 million. This means that older adults will account for nearly one-quarter of the total U.S. population.
Having an older population means a few things. For one, we are now experiencing a longer life expectancy, which was up to 78.6 years in 2017. The difference in life expectancy between men and women is also narrowing to just five years, and our poverty rate for older adults is lower today than it has been during the last 50 years. These are positive factors seen with an aging population, but there are many challenges, too.
Older age increases the likelihood of living with chronic conditions. Your body changes, and many organs may not function as well or even fail. Living with long term health problems can increase the number of pills needed to survive, medical appointments for follow-up care, and also the need for around-the-clock supervision. It’s estimated that the need for nursing home care will more than double between 2017 and 2030 and specific populations of patients, like those living with Alzheimer’s disease, could double as well.
The increase in the number of older adults is expected to challenge the healthcare system like never before. Here are four unique healthcare needs that the aged population in America is likely to face.
Too Many Boomers, Not Enough Healthcare Professionals
Nurses have heard for years that we are amid a shortage of nursing professionals. With the increase in older adults, there will be even more need for qualified nursing professionals. However, it’s critical to understand a few specific things about the nursing shortage that can further impact the aging population. While there is a shortage of nurses across the country, not every state or city is involved. Some states have too many nurses, while others can’t educate enough nursing graduates to keep up with the need.
Combine the lack of nursing staff with the location of the aging population, and we may have a perfect disaster. Urban areas typically have more nurses than rural areas, but the same is true of the older population. To further complicate things, it’s not only nurses that we are short of in the healthcare field. Experts have been predicting a shortage of physicians for years. More specifically, a lack of geriatricians, or those doctors who specialize in the care of the aging population. This may mean that just as we are reaching the peak of the aging population, we won’t have enough medical doctors available to meet the health care needs of aging adults.
Lack of Rural Healthcare Services
Seniors who live in urban areas will have a better chance of getting the care they need as they age. They may even have choices of the physicians they see, the hospitals they visit, and the skilled nursing facilities they go to for acute or chronic healthcare needs. However, those living in rural settings may face difficulties getting the care they need for various reasons.
Rural social workers, nurses, and doctors not only have to meet the unique needs of the aging population, but they must also be aware of the challenges residents in their area are likely to face. People living in rural communities are more likely to live in cyclical poverty where generation after generation of one family will live below the U.S. poverty line. Poverty can also affect the literacy levels, access to nutritious foods, and educational services that can promote wellness. These barriers to care must be considered on a global scale to address the possible challenges older Americans may face.
Preventive Care Needs
Along with healthcare services for chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, seniors will need to engage in healthy lifestyle habits that can promote overall health and wellness. This includes behaviors like seeing a primary care doctor annually for immunizations, laboratory tests, and diagnostics. Another healthy habit that can prevent or control diseases is eating a diet rich in vitamins and minerals. Even if someone in the baby boomer generation has been diagnosed with a chronic condition, engaging in healthy habits can slow the progression of these chronic illnesses. Changing their lifestyle can also minimize the need for extensive healthcare treatments like long term medications or surgeries.
Need for Affordable Care
The debate over affordable healthcare services in the U.S. seems like a continual conversation that affects both sides of the aisle. A recent article in The Fiscal Times reported that the baby boomer generation could grow the annual spending for healthcare to nearly $6 trillion by 2027. One area that will see the fastest growth is those over the age of 65 who use Medicare as their primary health coverage.
With an estimated 73.5 million people enrolled in Medicare before 2030, seniors must know how to get the right healthcare coverage now, before the system becomes too burdened. Programs may change over time, leaving some people searching for other types of insurance. Those who qualify for coverage based on income may need to look at Medicaid, which is administered by each state, as a viable option to health care coverage. Even private healthcare companies are expected to experience an increase in the number of seniors using their services. If Medicare can’t keep up with the healthcare needs of the growing older population, coverage may change, making purchasing private insurance a necessity.
All of these financial implications of healthcare could make living the lifestyle some boomers are accustomed too quite challenging. People who worked their entire lives and saved for retirement may end up depleting funds in an attempt to age in place. Not going into a nursing facility may be the only way to maintain control over their income and how they live the end of their lives.
A Plan for the Future
People in this age group must consider ways to get control of their healthcare needs now. Family members should begin having challenging conversations with seniors about their plans for healthcare in the future. Physicians, nurses, and therapists should consider the benefits of integrated care and advocate on behalf of their patients today to plan for the future.