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A Nation in Crisis: Who will care for the elderly?

By Kimberly Townsend

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Our society is aging at a rapid pace. Soon, a sizable population will need some form of long-term care. But who will care for them? 

The number of Americans over the age of 65 will nearly double from 52 million in 2018 to 95 million by 2060, and will occupy a higher percentage of the total population — from 16 percent to 23 percent. 

New York is projected to have 4.5 million people over the age of 65 by 2040. That would be 14 percent of all state residents. Of the 65 and older demographic, nearly 70 percent of them will need some form of long-term care. 

The best form of care depends on the needs of the individual. Those in good health may be able to stay in the comfort of their own homes. For older adults who need routine medical attention, facilities with a medical team might be the best and only choice. 

In either scenario, residents would likely need well-trained or certified health-care workers or both. But there are more job openings than workers. PHI, the research and advocacy group for direct-care workers, projects that by 2028, more than 8 million direct-care jobs will need to be filled nationwide. 

An obvious question arises from these alarming numbers: how can we, and other providers, continue to offer services when there are not enough workers? 

The challenges ahead

• High turnover rate

A high turnover rate creates a significant burden for businesses. Training new employees takes time and money. It becomes disruptive to the operation when they leave too soon. It’s especially troublesome for the long-term care industry because, compared to other hourly-waged jobs, direct-care workers need specialized training and medical knowledge to do their jobs well. 

• Difficulty recruiting 

The high turnover rate leads to another challenge: recruiting and training new workers. While demand for certified health-care professionals and home-health aides remain high, the workforce itself is shrinking. 

• Potential federal and state budget cuts  

Funding, or the lack of, remains a major source of struggle. The current federal administration’s proposal to reduce federal health program spending for the elderly, if passed, would further strain an industry that’s already operating at a multibillion-dollar deficit. 

In New York, one in three residents are in the Medicaid program. That’s a total of 6 million people relying on Medicaid. Within that 6 million people, 70 percent of the cost provides care for the elderly. 

In addition, about 45 percent of baby boomers have not saved for retirement. Soon, the boomers will rely on Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security — the assistance programs they need but might not be available for them. 

Possible solutions

The good news is that long-term care providers in Central New York have anticipated these hurdles and have been working to find solutions. 

• Retain current employees 

Competitive wages, better benefits, and internal talent-management programs are a few good strategies to retain current employees. 

Other forms of financial assistance can also help keep employees. Major life moments, such as starting a family or purchasing a car or a house, can get expensive. Providing specific items or programs that support these needs may not be common, but we have seen firsthand that it can make a huge difference. 

Investing in current employees to advance their careers within your organization is another great option. Companies can offer flexibility in work hours and financial support for industry-specific educational programs. 

• Get creative with recruitment

Second chance or re-entry programs can be a practical solution. 

There are assistance programs in place in every state to help those who were justice-involved to successfully transition back into the community. It’s possible for this population to return to work and contribute to society as working individuals, but they still face barriers and have trouble securing jobs. 

With proper training, support, and resources, we can create a pipeline of job-ready workers who would fill a variety of positions throughout long-term care and other industries in Central New York. 

• Diversify income 

Federal and state grants could alleviate financial strains, but there is competition for these grants and no guarantees. 

Donations are an important source of income. The generosity of individuals who are passionate about senior care and eager to create a place where the elderly can enjoy has supported our organization in the past and will continue to be essential for our ability to provide the best care in this challenging environment. 

Looking Ahead 

Central New York — and the nation — need skilled health-care workers. But the shortage is too complicated to be solved by a single entity. Industry leaders, policymakers, and legislators must come together and workout a viable, sustainable solution. And I welcome a discussion on these important topics with other leaders.      

Kimberly Townsend is president and CEO of Loretto, and author of “Lifecircle Leadership: How Exceptional People Make Every Day Extraordinary.” 

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