4 min read

Caring For An Aging Nation

While self-care has become synonymous with the booming wellness economy, senior care has become a crisis in the making.

An Aging Nation

  • The fastest-growing segment of the US population is between the ages of 85 and 94.
  • By 2034, for the first time ever, people 65+ will outnumber those under 18.

How we got here: For most of human history, life expectancy was about 27 years. By 1900, that number jumped to 47 years. Today, we’re living 79 years and longer. Meanwhile, our societal norms and institutions have not adapted to accommodate this shift.

As a result, no one—not families, caregivers, insurance providers, or government programs—is prepared to take care of this aging population.

The big picture: Aging adults tend to live at home, with family, or in some version of senior housing. Each scenario requires a varying level of care and comes with its own set of challenges. Which begs the question, as we age, who’s going to take care of us and where will we live? 

The Unofficial Senior Care System

Aging in place. 76% of adults 50 and above want to stay in their homes as they age. But doing so often requires some level of assistance. The expectation, then, is that the children—known as the sandwich generation—work full time while raising their own children and caring for an older family member or elderly parent(s).

Of course, that’s assuming there’s someone there to help out. In reality, seniors suffer from loneliness, depression, and social isolation at alarming rates — exacerbating other health ailments and costing Medicare an additional $6.7B a year.

Unpaid labor. According to AARP, about 41M family caregivers in the US provided an estimated 34B hours of care to an adult in 2017. The estimated economic value of their unpaid contributions was approximately $470B.

Among this group, nearly half of family caregivers suffer from depression and 45% do not have time to book or attend their own medical appointments. Worse, one study found that 40% of Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers die from stress-related ailments before the individual they’re caring for.

Low-wage jobs. Low wages, poor benefits, and a high-stress environment have created an industry that’s currently incapable of addressing the need. By 2020, 117M adults will require some kind of assistance, but there will only be 45M professional caregivers.

Among current home care workers, 87% are women, 60% are persons of color, 52% have a high school diploma or less, and 51% get some form of public assistance. In the US, the median annual salary for a home care job is ~$25K.

The myth of assisted living. Nursing home. Assisted living. Retirement community. Call it what you will, neither families nor the elderly actually want to end up here. But increasingly, it has become a necessity.

By the numbers:

  • Between half and two-thirds of older Americans are expected to need some degree of long-term care.
  • By 2029, 54% of middle-income seniors will not have sufficient resources to pay for senior housing, plus the much-needed care provided.
  • The national average for a one-bedroom apartment in assisted living is $4,120/month, but geographic variations range from $3,700 in New Orleans to $6,000+ in Boston.

Cost aside, assisted living as we know it might not be a viable solution. Writing for the New York Times, Geeta Anand points out that most assisted care facilities only provide a low degree of actual assistance. And in some cases, the residents outnumber the staff such that monitoring, let alone assisting, proves difficult.

Now what?

According to Andrew Carle, founding director of the program in senior housing administration at George Mason University, to prevent social and economic collapse, we must deploy a two-pronged approach to caring for aging populations.

First, Carle recommends developing technology aimed at helping seniors live independently longer. Then, we’ll need to convince them to congregate. That way, we can care for them more effectively — with humans, robots, or both.

On the technology front, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian has been quick to identify opportunities in elder tech. As co-founder and managing partner of Initialized Capital, an early-stage venture capital firm, Ohanian has backed a few startups focused on senior services and care, including autonomous car company Voyage ($51M in funding), “grandkids on demand” startup Papa ($13M), and secure banking service True Link Financial ($15M).

Similarly, companies including at-home caregiving platform Honor ($115M), senior software developer K4Connect ($21M), and senior insurer Devoted Health ($326M) are seeking to disrupt what’s fast becoming a trillion-dollar market.

Looking ahead: Technology is just one piece of the aging population puzzle. From housing to healthcare and pharmaceuticals to biotech, the aging global population will have a profound impact on individuals, businesses, and governments.

Punchline: As lifespans continue to increase, it’s imperative we begin to rethink aging. Because, as Andrew Carle sees it, failing to do so isn’t an option:

“The rapidly aging worldwide population will affect us more than global warming, I think. It’s the seminal event of the 21st century.”

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