By Anila Sitaram Venkat
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2030, 20% of Americans will be 65 years or older, up from 13% in 2009. This trend represents a confluence of two factors: an aging Baby Boomer population and the fact that people are living longer than ever before.
This trend will no doubt have far-reaching implications, from creating a shortage of geriatricians and nurses trained to care for the elderly, to placing an increased burden on our hospitals and long-term care facilities. However a lesser recognized impact is the strain that this trend will place on caregivers: the family and friends charged with taking care of their elderly loved ones.
The Older Adult of Tomorrow
Over the last 20 years, though life expectancy has increased, healthy life expectancy has not kept pace. The prevalence of obesity among adults has risen to 27.8 percent, while the prevalence of diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure has increased to 9.5 and 30.8 percent, respectively.
Furthermore, as people live longer, they are prone to suffer from multiple chronic medical conditions (multimorbidity). According to a 2010 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, these people are at higher risk of mortality, poor functional status, unnecessary hospitalizations, adverse drug events, duplicative tests, and conflicting medical advice.
Lifestyle factors, such as smoking, poor diet and inadequate physical activity, contribute greatly to the rise in multiple chronic conditions.
Implications for Caregiving
As tomorrow’s older adult changes and evolves, so does the role of the caregiver. As family caregivers take on larger roles in caring for their loved ones, there are three specific areas of focus that will become increasingly important.
First, caregivers need to facilitate and encourage positive changes in their loved ones’ lifestyles. For example, caregivers can take simple steps to make the home environment safer and more secure, giving their loved one the confidence to engage in more physical activity within the home itself – be it with short walks or simple housework. Caregivers should also consider leveraging innovative technology to encourage movement. For example, they can use Wii Fit to make exercise fun and novel for their loved one.
Second, caregivers should be increasingly involved with the health care of their loved one. With multimorbidity comes a myriad of doctors and other health care providers, medications and care instructions. Oftentimes, until electronic health records can fill the gap, caregivers are the only link between all of the above and will be the ones responsible for information-sharing and ensuring successful hand-offs between parties.
Third, caregivers should be well-apprised of their loved one’s wishes and preferences for care towards the end-of-life. Multimorbidity usually accompanies higher rates of adverse effects from medical intervention. While one of your loved one’s doctors may want to treat one particular condition within his or her specialty, treatment may not be in the best interest of your loved one’s overall health, in the context of all of his or her illnesses. Your loved one may instead prefer to live out his or her remaining days in peace and comfort.
As the aging population evolves, so too must the role of the caregiver. By preparing for the potential changes in their loved ones’ health status, caregivers can more easily adapt as needed and continue to play a critical role in the care of our elderly population. Balancing caring for an elderly loved one with other responsibilities can be challenging. However, there is help available through Lotsa Helping Hands, which allows caregivers to benefit from the gifts of much needed help, emotional support, and peace of mind, while volunteers find meaning in giving back to those in need.
Anila Sitaram Venkat is an editor at ElderBranch, a comprehensive, trusted information source for people looking for senior care for themselves or a loved one.