What Computer Geeks Taught Me About the Future of Aging

Sometime in the near future, our nation may not have enough qualified workers to serve every older American who needs services and supports. That's more than a little scary, especially for baby boomers who are turning 65 at the rate of about 10,000 a day. I am one of those baby boomers. But I'm not scared anymore.
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Sometime in the near future, our nation may not have enough qualified workers to serve every older American who needs services and supports. That's more than a little scary, especially for baby boomers who are turning 65 at the rate of about 10,000 a day. I am one of those baby boomers. But I'm not scared anymore. And I have an energetic group of computer "geeks" to thank for that. Don't get me wrong. I'm still concerned about the future of aging services. By 2050, there will be 89 million Americans between the ages of 65 and 84.

These older adults will make up about 20 percent of the U.S. population. That's the highest percentage of older Americans we've ever seen in this country. The real challenge will come from another demographic fact. The Pew Research Center estimates that by 2050 -- just as the number of older people is ballooning -- there will be significantly fewer working-age people available to care for them. So why am I not scared? Geeks to the Rescue The computer geeks who eased my fears about aging were college students participating in an event called the "LeadingAge HackFest."

Teams of 4-to-6 participants spent two days last October holed up in a Dallas hotel trying to create a technology-driven tool that would improve the lives of older adults and their families. The technology solutions devised during the HackFest all-nighter were pretty impressive. But the technology itself wasn't what eased my fears about the future of aging services. What set my mind at rest was the realization that we might actually be able to solve our looming caregiver crisis by enlisting the help of some pretty non-traditional partners -- partners like the young techies who traded their weekend plans for an opportunity to hit on the next big idea in aging services technologies. To be frank, providers of aging services need lots of help from people just like this -- people who, up until now, we have never invited into our care settings. It's Not Just About the Technology LeadingAge will again be encouraging young men and women to develop promising age-related technology solutions during this year's Hackfest, which takes place Oct. 18-20 in Nashville. But, why stop there? Why not encourage providers of aging services to enlist other nontraditional partners who could help us address the challenges associated with an aging population? These new partners need just three basic characteristics -- all of which I witnessed at the LeadingAge HackFest: An interest in the challenges facing older people, even if those challenges aren't directly related to their course of study or career path. A belief that they have what it takes to improve the aging experience. A willingness to collaborate with older adults and providers of aging services to come up with solutions that actually have a chance of working. There's a long list of new partners who could help us change the lives of older people if we would only ask. Here's the short list: Retirees Who understands the needs of older people better than older people? So why don't aging services organizations hire more of them? Let's recruit retirees to work in our care settings. Let's create flexible, part-time jobs that appeal to their retired lifestyle. These older workers might share jobs with younger workers who would carry out the more physically taxing aspects of caregiving.

Retired health care professionals, including doctors and nurses, could serve as mentors and coaches for younger and less experienced staff. Family Caregivers Many dedicated family members have already answered the call to help husbands, wives, and parents cope with illness or late-life challenges. In the process, they have acquired a host of skills that could really benefit aging services organizations and the people we serve. With formal training, these family caregivers could become key members of our care teams when they are no longer needed at home. High School Students High schools are in a great position to educate their students about the aging process. They can also help dispel the myths about older people that often keep young people from entering the field of aging services. Our care settings could give these students a place to gain practical caregiving experience and to decide if they wanted to make caregiving a career.

Providers of aging services might even consider offering financial support to help students pursue certification and degree programs that enhance their skills. College Students Nursing homes, assisted living communities and community-based service agencies could provide life-changing service-learning opportunities to college students pursuing a variety of degree paths. Some providers of aging services already support training programs for nurses, doctors and other health professionals. More providers should open their doors to professionals-in-training as well as a variety of scholars in non-clinical fields. It's not hard to imagine how a drama major might be inspired to become a nursing home's activity director.

A technology major might decide to join a retirement community's IT department. A culinary student could become an assisted living community's next chef. The possibilities are endless, as long as we don't limit our imaginations -- or the imaginations of our new partners. Welcoming New People to the Team Attracting nontraditional caregivers will require some nontraditional decisions from aging services organizations. We'll need to: Create and sustain relationships with people who have never been on our radar screens. That will take ingenuity and persistence. Design jobs that will make young people and retirees want to come to work every day. That's a challenge for any employer. Invest in rigorous training programs and offer competitive salary and benefits packages. Foster a corporate culture that respects workers, offers them the freedom to use their skills creatively, and welcomes them as integral and fully functioning members of the care team. All this may sound hard. But if the energy and excitement of the LeadingAge HackFest is any indication, it is far from impossible. The HackFest made two things abundantly clear. An investment in welcoming nontraditional partners to the field of aging services will bring new energy and excitement to our care settings.

It will also provide new hope to the people who are depending on us to be there for them if and when they need services and supports in the future.

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