How technology can help LTC face the baby boom surge

A hurricane presents two distinct, but overlapping dangers—the storm itself and the surge that develops in its wake.

There has been a major storm boiling on the horizon of the senior living industry for years—and now, it has arrived. The largest generation in American history, the baby boomers, is getting older—and living longer than any generation before it—and the resources required to care for this population is stretched dangerously thin.

Like the people in the path of a real hurricane, many assisted-living and skilled nursing communities are carefully preparing, but others are riding it out and hoping for the best.

However, a growing body of evidence suggests that digital engagement technology could do more than blunt many of the most significant challenges of a large aging population and ongoing caregiver shortages.

How communities leverage this technology could uncover strategies to fundamentally re-imagine the resident-caregiver relationship for the 21st century. The integration of this technology is much more than “covering the bases.” It’s an avenue for fostering stronger and more enduring connections among a community of caregivers, older adults and their families. It’s a sustainable way to shatter professional and healthcare silos, improve resident outcomes and meaningfully enrich the lives of older adults.

The Storm and the Surge
Between 2018 and 2050, the population of people age 65 will nearly double from 48 million to 88 million. According to Pew Research, more than 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day. As many as 70 percent of them will require some form of long-term care, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Older adults are also living longer than ever before. Thanks to advances in medicine and quality of life measures, Americans on average are living 30 years longer than their ancestors a century ago.

However, with advanced age comes a greater risk for physical and cognitive decline. For example, Alzheimer’s disease doubles in prevalence every five years after age 60. Adults over the age of 85 have a one in three chance of managing the disease.

Older adults vulnerable to physical and cognitive chronic diseases and co-morbidities require a lot of care. Unfortunately, this growing and long-lived population is being met with a paucity of caregivers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that an additional 1.1 million paid caregivers will be required to care for this population. However, it’s estimated the senior living industry will face a shortage of more than 355,000 paid direct caregivers by 2040.

There are several reasons for this growing shortage. A sizable percentage of semi-skilled caregivers are immigrants subject to employment-based visa caps. Low wages, poor benefits and few opportunities for advancement are other reasons for enduring shortages. In 2015, the median income was $20,000 for a CNA. These factors have contributed to an astonishing 60 percent turnover rate.

Wages and benefits aside, the job itself is difficult. Caregivers are often helping residents with complicated co-morbidities of the body and mind, presenting uniquely difficult challenges for positive health outcomes and life enrichment.

Engagement Technology Makes a Difference
The twin challenges of caregiver shortages and a growing population of older adults doesn’t have a simple solution. Legislation and better pay and benefits are a great start, but often take time to implement.

In the immediate term, digital engagement technology presents itself as an opportunity not only to bridge gaps between care demands and care availability, but to create lasting and more meaningful relationships between caregivers and the older adults they serve.

This is an important point—it’s not just the technology, but how it’s used.

3 Ways Engagement Technology Helps
Ubiquity. Digital technology permeates our daily lives. Most our lives—from work to family to social connections—can be managed right from our smartphones. According to a study by Pew Research Center, most older adults make internet use a part of their daily lives. For most online older adults, ages 65 and older, internet use is a daily fixture with 67 percent accessing the news on mobile devices and 77 percent of adults over 65 own a mobile phone.

Many senior living communities have integrated technology programs into residents’ daily routines as today’s technology can keep older adults connected, mentally active and physically safe. Moreover, technology can be scaled for those older adults managing dementia and other cognitive health issues.

Those experiencing cognitive decline have the most to gain from adopting technology of any group. And the good news is that finding ways to help this group through technology isn’t very complicated.

Integration. Like any other area of healthcare, the senior living industry is bedeviled by professional silos. Memory therapy, clinical care, activities coordination and other areas of senior living communities are often siloed.

Digital engagement technology can easily be leveraged to customize holistic engagement, wellness and therapy plans for each individual. It also helps professionals in separate areas of the community share critical resident information and intervention strategies in one place. Technology can foster improved interdisciplinary interaction, bringing together the areas of skilled nursing and life enrichment to work toward common goals, which could include improving meaningful engagement or reducing falls, the use of anti-depressants or costly rehospitalizations.

Enrichment and Fulfillment. Many senior living communities find it difficult to attract and retain caregiver staff. The constant churn of staff—and their attendant hiring and training—can become prohibitively expensive for most communities. Additionally, a constant stream of new faces can make it difficult for residents, especially those experiencing cognitive decline, to adapt to their environments and bond with caregivers.

Technology may blunt the turnover ratio, especially among the more tech-savvy Millennial and post-millennial generations entering the senior-living workforce. These generations have been around digital technology practically from birth. Their comfort level using technology and their ability to do more with less is an invaluable commodity for resource-strapped communities.

Additionally, digital engagement technology is the ideal gateway to help caregivers and residents access activities, memories, a familial connections with the touch of a button. This technology can also redirect older adults with cognitive decline away from isolation and depression and toward enriching and purposeful activities.

Tomorrow’s Forecast—Brighter Days Ahead
Philosophically, digital engagement technology is like a house.

A house is an organized structure of wood and nails, shingles, fiberglass insulation, drywall, plumbing and wiring, vinyl siding and double-paned glass windows. It’s value is measured in materials, market and location.

A home is something entirely different. It’s made of people living their lives, day after day. Kids’ artwork on the fridge, a collage of vacation photos on the wall, the lingering scents of favorite foods cooked over and again, of memories hidden in the wear-and-tear of comfortable routines unique to every family.

Similarly, computer tablets and monitors are just shells of plastic and silicon that house the ones and zeros that comprise programs and apps. How well they connect and enrich is entirely up to the people who use them. Technology doesn’t replace human connection; it amplifies it.

Digital engagement technology is far from a cure-all to a caregiver shortages and a swiftly growing population of older adults. However, it is a critical and significant step in the right direction.

Jack York is president and co-founder of It’s Never 2 Late® (iN2L) is an award-winning developer of digital engagement technology for senior living community residents, with over 2,500 installations in the United States and Canada.

Juliet Kerlin is Director of Research and Program Partnerships at iN2L. Juliet holds a master’s degree in Gerontology and has served on the advisory board of the Dementia Action Alliance and the Board of Directors of A Little Help.

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