September 8, 2011

USA: As Older American Population Increases, So Does Demand For Elder Care

SOUTHBOROUGH, Massachusetts / BrainTrack / Career News / September 7, 2011

By Yaffa Klugerman

After over a decade successfully working in finance, Nadir H. Wright is getting set to embark on a new business venture: This October, he will be opening Bright Days Home Care in New York, which will provide non-medical, in-home care for older adults. He expects his business to serve about 30 clients in the first year, with a staff of about 35 caregivers.

"There is such a great need for this service," he explains, "particularly as the Baby Boomers continue to age."

Indeed, study after study has confirmed that quality care for America's elderly remains a pressing issue. According to a recent report released by MetLife's Mature Market Institute, about 10 million Americans age 50 and older currently provide care to one or both of their parents. Fifteen years ago, just one-third of that number did so.

Moreover, as the population of aging Americans grows, the demand for services for the elderly is only expected to rise. According to the United States Census Bureau, about 40 million, or just under 13 percent of Americans are currently age 65 and older. By 2050, however, that number is projected to expand to 88.5 million--roughly 20 percent of the country's population. People 85 years old will be among one of the nation's fastest growing groups: Today, there are just under 6 million of them, but by 2050 the number is expected to rise to 19 million.

"All of these people are going to need more care and more services," notes Denise R. Scruggs, director of the Beard Center on Aging at Lynchburg College in Virginia. "We see people living longer, and we never have enough qualified people to care for them."

Public perceptions make it difficult to attract workers

Part of the problem with attracting workers to the field, she says, is public perception. "Working in the field of gerontology is not sexy," she says. "We're seeing a disconnect among generations, and we see stereotypes that aging is not good, and that working with old people is boring."

Maria Yefimova, who graduated with Bachelor of Science in Nursing from UCLA in June and is currently working towards her nursing doctorate with a focus in gerontology, agrees. "I believe there still exists a persistent stereotype of a debilitated dependent older person, which discourages people from pursuing a career in gerontology," she says.

Many people also avoid careers in elder care because workloads can be high, and wages are typically lower than in other fields. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2010, for example, home health aides earned a mean hourly wage of just $10.46. This was the case even though such workers are in great demand: The BLS predicts that employment of home health aides will grow by 50 percent between 2008 and 2018--significantly faster than the average for all occupations.

Even with more education and training, salaries remain significantly lower in careers that focus on treating the elderly. According to data from the Association of Directors of Geriatric Academic Programs and the American Geriatric Society's Geriatrics Workforce Policy Studies Center, for example, the median salary for a geriatrician in private practice in 2010 was $183,523. This was $5,879 less than the average family physician's salary, and $21,856 less than the average general internist's salary. It's no wonder, then, that in 2009-10, only 273, or 56 percent, of geriatric medicine first-year fellowship training slots were filled.

Workers seek to make a difference

Ultimately, says Scruggs, people who pursue careers in elder care choose to do so because they want to make a difference. "It's more than the money," she says. "You need to have a love of working with older adults."

Charlotte Arbogast, a Certified Dementia Practitioner who is currently pursuing her master's in gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University, is one such example. She graduated with a bachelor's in history, but became interested in gerontology around the time that her family started caring for her grandfather, who was suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. Arbogast discovered that most workers lacked the skills and training necessary to provide adequate assistance. Currently, she is focusing on the policy aspects of gerontology, such as with issues of power of attorney and title protection for gerontologists.

"I wanted to help solve some of those problems," she says.

Wright, of Bright Days Home Care, understands that feeling. "I have had a successful career working in financial services for over 10 years, but in the end that has proven not to be as rewarding as when I am helpful to others," he explains. "I witnessed my grandmother struggle with diabetes and my mother with liver failure. It was a challenge for us to find in-home care that was consistent and compassionate. I am doing this in memory of them, ensuring that the clients I serve receive quality care."

Not surprisingly, he describes his ideal candidate as "someone who wants to do this job because they find it rewarding to be of service to others."

Experts point out that gerontology today offers a variety of career choices even beyond healthcare. Scruggs says that the rise in aging Americans is creating demand for transportation providers, elder law attorneys, financial planners, social workers, geriatric care managers, and even funeral directors. In fact, she predicts that the aging of America will ultimately have an effect on all careers--even those that are not directly related to the elderly.

"The population shift of older Americans is going to impact you," she says, "regardless of your field of study."

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