Ready or Not: Quality Assurance for an Aging Population
There are approximately 75 million people, as of 2016, who are included in the baby boomer generation. This demographic refers to people born after World War II, beginning in 1946 and ending in 1964. Throughout the years, the group has been used as a historical landmark: Baby boomers are entering high school; baby boomers are entering the work force; baby boomers are beginning to have babies of their own. Now, we have baby boomers retiring.
In 2014, there were more than 46.2 million people of retirement age. For the next 20 years, approximately 3 million people will retire every year. Is society ready to meet the needs of the aging population? They will have a plethora of needs. One of the primary areas of increased need will be health care services.
Increased Need for All Types of Health Care Services
At the same time baby boomers are aging and needing health care services, baby boomers who have previously provided these services will no longer be in the work force. A 2014 report published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that even though life expectancy has increased, the aging population is not as healthy as their counterparts of previous years. They have a significantly high rate of diabetes, hypertension, obesity and other chronic conditions. This means the current aging population needs more health care services than previous groups of senior citizens. This causes a greater demand for health education programs to promote healthy lifestyles in baby boomers.
Impact of the Aging Population on Medicare
Medicare is a health care insurance program that went into effect in 1965 to provide services for those 65 and older. It has been amended to allow younger people who have certain chronic medical conditions or permanent disabilities to also be covered. There are many requirements and complex rules concerning eligibility and how benefits are allocated, but basically, those who are eligible for Social Security benefits and have paid into the fund through their payroll taxes for a period of 10 years are also eligible for Medicare benefits.
Whether changes should be made to the Medicare program is a subject frequently discussed by politicians. Some argue that the program should be dissolved and the elderly should be required to purchase private insurance, with some government assistance. Others feel that instead of cutting back or changing Medicare, the plan should be expanded to cover all Americans regardless of age.
Meanwhile, a report published in April 2016, based on a 2011 research study, identified some real challenges to the Medicare program as it strives to serve the aging population:
- Approximately 66 percent of Medicare recipients have chronic medical conditions.
- Three out of 10 suffered from some type of cognitive impairment.
- Seventeen percent were under the age of 65, but suffering from permanent disabilities.
- Five percent lived in long-term care facilities.
- Thirteen percent were 85 years or older.
- More than one-fourth of all recipients reported they were only in fair or poor health.
In 2014, half of all Medicare recipients had incomes below $25,000 and savings accounts hovering around $60,000. This is much less money than they expected to have during their retirement years. Many lost a lot of money in the most recent recession. If Medicare is taken away from them, they will have no, or at least limited, resources available to pay for their health care needs.
Need for More Clinicians to Meet the Needs of the Aging Population
It is no secret to baby boomers that their physician peers work long hours. But these physicians are also retiring. They are being replaced by a younger generation who, according to the president of one health service provider, “demand a 35-hour work week.” There will also be a dearth of ancillary health care personnel such as nurses, therapists, technicians and home health care workers.
The vice-president of the National Council on Aging (NCOA) says, “We’re going to need about 1.6 million new positions by 2020 and we’re not on a path to meet that need by any stretch of the imagination.” There is definitely a need for policy makers to work on meeting the need for more health care workers, increased training for direct-care workers, and improved levels of compensation for these positions.
Some Good News for the Aging Population
It is not all dismal. Technology is advancing, and new health care models are being developed. Some projects underway with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) show promise. These include:
- Using patient-centered homes to assist patients with the transition out of the hospital. Still missing from the equation is how to finance the plan so on-call nurses and pharmacists can be efficiently paid.
- Research is focusing on delaying the aging process, which will also delay the development of chronic illnesses. This will increase the quality of life, not just the extension of it.
- Expansion of acute-care hospital units for the elderly.
- Mobile health care facilities, which will improve accessibility.
- Technology that can better monitor patient health needs such as blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
There are definite challenges to providing quality care to the aging population. Fortunately, the country and its health policy makers are working diligently to meet them. The goal is to meet the needs of the elderly so those in their twilight years can be as healthy as possible and their healthcare needs are met.