As both a practitioner within the aging services network, and a gerontology and social work student, I have a strong interest in applied research, demographics trends, and factors that influence the field of aging service providers. This information can be particularly helpful to help identify, understand, develop, and offer supports and services to older adults and make a positive impact on their daily lives. Both class lectures (Chapelski, 2018) and Moody and Sasser (2018), clearly point out that the demographics in the United States are in the midst of undergoing a transformation and the population pyramid will become rectangular by the year 2030 as the baby boom generation ages. This generation like many others, has its own nuances, beliefs, and expectations; and as a practitioner, future research and educator, it is interesting to explore how this cohort will impact the future demand and utilization of services currently provided by the aging network. Truly, as part of understanding the need of future services, it is important to understand the generation that will be using them. Stephan Golant (2017) notes in his article that if the baby boomer cohort and values are still true today, they have strong self-reliant values, believe in their own ability to get things done, want to be on top and in charge, believe they know best, act independently based upon their self-confidence, do not abide by older rules and expectations in society, and they must steer their own course.
With this image of the baby boom generation in mind, it is thought-provoking to explore the current aging network, in attempt to ascertain whether aging service providers are prepared and will be relevant for this generation as it enters older age. While the United States is starting to see how this will play out, since the baby boomers began turning age 65 in the year 2011, unanswered questions remain. One can begin to ponder how the baby boom generation cohort will influence and shape the aging network, what specific generational demands and expectations will be placed on aging services, what types of services will be of most importance and how do they differ from what is presently being offered, how has and/or will the aging network prepare, respond and provide services in a relevant manner to this generation, and is the Older Americans Act still relevant for this new cohort of older adults? These questions are important to explore, evaluate, and answer as this generation enters older age. From a research perspective, the possible answers to these questions can provide helpful insight into a generation about their needs and preferences. Further, potential learnings may also help to inform practice, are useful to apply when developing and prioritizing services as well as best practices, to understand, appreciate and engage the individuals utilizing services, and determine ways to invest funding and limited resources. Finally, responses to these questions can contribute to education by helping to prepare students and future generations of practitioners such as social workers, gerontologists, and nurses.
Much has been written about the trends of aging baby boomers. Baby boomers are living longer than previous generations; they have on average, higher levels of education and more work experiences; many are working later into life rather than retiring at the age of 65; and are more economically secure than previous generations (Mather et al, 2016; Moody & Sasser, 2018.) Aging baby boomers will face issues related to caregiving, illness and obesity; obesity rates are increasing, putting more people at risk for chronic disease and disability, and an increasing number of Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease (Mather et al, 2016.) Also, more older adults are divorced, there is an increase in single-parent and blended families, leading to weaker family ties and less caregiving support for aging spouses and parents (Mather et al, 2016.) Further, sufficient future preparations have not been made to meet baby boomers’ anticipated needs in old age, and the ability to afford paying for services as one ages varies among the baby boomer cohort (Golant, 2017; Mather et al, 2016; Moody & Sasser, 2018.) In addition, inequality continues to exist between different racial and ethnic groups of older adults (Golant, 2017;Mather et al, 2016; Moody & Sasser, 2018) and there are wider economic gaps between racial and ethnic groups over age 65 who are poor, with a higher number of older Latinos and African Americans living in poverty (Mather et al, 2016; Moody & Sasser, 2018.)
To address the unique generational perspective of aging baby boomers and the demographic trends of this population, the aging network and service providers must be familiar with the characteristics, trends, and needs of this group. The Aging Network consists of state units on aging, Area Agencies on Aging, and service providers that is fragmented and operates with limited funding (Browdie, 2014.) Services provided include caretaking, nutritional, and health services for American above the age of 60 such as Information, Referral and Assistance, congregate and home delivered meals, senior centers, transportation programs, and the Ombudsman Program (Browdie, 2014; Gelfand & Chapleski, 2018; Moody & Sasser, 2018.) This network is also challenged to support a wide age range of individuals, from ages 50 – 100+, and become stretched in reaching this diverse and varied group.
Nutrition programs are one example of aging services that are adapting to meet the needs of baby boomers. Feeding American and AARP issued a report in 2015 on baby boomers and nutrition. The report noted that in terms of meals and preferences, boomers often tend use less salt and sugar on their foods, are accustomed to having access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and a diverse array of meals which are pleasing to different racial and ethnic groups. This information is important for nutritional providers who looking to provide home delivered and congregate meals that are healthy and palatable for the consumer. This report also cited numerous reasons that some baby boomers are participating in nutrition programs due to unemployment in their 50’s-60’s and unpaid medical bills, thus, resulting in limited income which may impact the ability to buy food. Furthermore, the report urged communities to examine unique partnerships between food banks, nutritional providers, healthcare entities and other partner agencies to shape services such as the use of food programs, nutritional assessment and ability to access food (Feed America, 2015, p. 22) and health care providers can better address their patient needs by assessing for hunger, and partnering with agencies for wellness programs and programs to manage chronic conditions such as diabetes (Feed America, 2015.) These concrete suggestions offer ways for the aging network to be responsive to the nutritional needs of aging baby boomers.
Health, wellness, and management of chronic disease is another area of aging services network and supported through the Older Americans Act that has the potential to expand and is of interest to aging baby boomers. Golant (2017) argues that baby boomers have repeatedly received messages that they must proactively take care of their bodies to prevent disease, maintain high physical and mental functioning, and keep actively engaged to remain health and reduce the possibility of being frail (p. 80) which translates into the importance of regular health checks ups, falls prevention strategies, eating right and exercising. Additionally, he also notes because of these messages and importance of remaining self-reliant, baby boomers may be willing to explore and change the environment to meet their needs and use physical and social resources such as assistive devices, sensitively designed buildings and products, and caregiving family members and professionals (Golant, 2017). Likewise, they are open to technology being integrated into daily life to help aging baby boomers remain independent. The use of smart phones and technology to arrange transportation, maintain smart homes including the monitoring home security, home functions, appliances, and lighting, conducting health checks through telehealth and telemedicine, assist with mobility, and assist with social activities are all designed to help maintain independence and provide care (Golant, 2017.) For the aging service network, this provides both opportunities and challenges as boomers may be healthier into later life, more willing to try and accept help and services, however, this also comes at a cost which an already underfunded system may not be able to sustain. Likewise, while baby boomers are healthier and living longer, inequalities in health status and life expectancy continue to exist due to race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and education. Moreover, technology can be costly, requires individuals to learn how to use it, is not currently widespread in homes throughout the country and it can potentially increase social isolation (Golant, 2017.)
Where and how baby boomers live will be important to the aging network in determing home repair, home maintenance, and location of services. Boomers also want to age in place for as long as possible and universal design becomes increasingly important to help them remain independent such as lower cabinets, contrasting colors, where the door handles are placed, and first floor bathrooms (Mather et al, 2016.) Also, a higher percentage of aging baby boomers are aging in place in suburban locales and neighborhoods rather than in the 1970’s and 1980’s when a higher share of older adults lived in more populated areas and inner cities and while not wide spread, there is growth in naturally occurring retirement communities and age friendly communities as well as the growth in home care, adult day services (Golant, 2017; Moody & Sasser, 2018.) Transportation will continue to be an issue to help maintain older adults independence, but, boomers may be more apt to use services such as Uber and Lyft and quite possibly self-driving cars.
Based upon responses to the questions proposed earlier in this paper about the aging network, it certainly seems that there is a future role. However, providers of aging services need to be able to keep up with the market demands and remain relevant to the potential consumers of their products and services. While the broad, overall categories of the Older Americans Act continue to appear relevant, the manner and methods need to continue to evolve and change to meet the current interests, demands and wants of baby boomers. And soon, it will be time again to look at the next generations from the Gen Xers to the Millennials to determine how to continue to offer services and supports as these cohorts age that are of relevance and need.
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