Solving the Dignity Crisis for Older Americans

23, 2021

8 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As humans, one of our most basic and prized possessions is our dignity. The concept of dignity is complex and multidimensional, such that it warrants far greater treatment than a single article can provide. Yet I would like to concentrate on one aspect of dignity and its implications in senior living: the ability for each of us to maintain self-respect as we age by staying autonomous and physically and mentally capable. On an individual level, protecting dignity remains paramount to maximizing quality of life. On a national scale, it is vital to ensuring the health of our economy and society.

So, what factors threaten the dignity of millions of older Americans today? And what solutions can we implement to address them? These questions underly one of the greatest demographic shifts of our time, a trend known as the “Silver Tsunami.” This refers to the substantial aging of the US population, in which every day 10,000 American adults turn age 65, with the number of people at least this age projected to reach approximately 98 million by 2060, a figure nearly double its current state.  

Advancements in medicine, and societal awareness about factors that lead to better health, mean adults are now living longer. In fact, people aged 65 are expected to live another 19 years on average.

The Silver Tsunami brings important implications for all of us, especially those in the healthcare and senior housing industries.

With the older population expected to balloon in the coming years, we will undoubtedly see greater demands placed on our healthcare system. In fact, we can observe this pressure taking place now. With longer life expectancies, adults are experiencing more health problems in their lifetimes. In fact, older adults are at higher risk of developing chronic diseases, a systemic problem in this country, regardless of age. Sixty percent of older adults manage two or more chronic conditions, which include heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or other conditions. Unlike acute illnesses and injuries, chronic conditions often require daily, ongoing management, which consume crucial healthcare resources and account for considerable medical expense. In 2017, the estimated cost of diabetes equaled $327 billion in the US.

Related: Home Healthcare All Set to Transform Lives in Future

And then there’s the housing problem. Today, seniors face a shortage of housing that meets their needs affordably, an issue that is driven by numerous factors, including the rise of healthcare and housing costs with the stabilization of incomes. As housing and healthcare expenses rise, seniors are finding themselves priced out of the markets able to provide them the levels of support they need to retain their dignity. A study by the University of Pennsylvania looked at the housing conditions for Baby Boomers in three major cities. Based on this analysis, the study predicts that the number of people over the age of 65 who are homeless will triple by 2030 in these regions. Despite these alarming trends, we can implement solutions to protect and preserve the dignity of older Americans now and in the future.

Create a more affordable, accessible model of senior living

How can we ensure seniors age with dignity? It starts with addressing the shortage of senior housing—both in terms of availability and affordability. Starting with assisted living, we need to begin developing more communities in more regions, looking beyond major cities to smaller, more rural, yet easily accessible areas. This would allow more seniors to remain in or near their existing communities. At the same time, it also allows senior housing developers to capitalize on the relatively lower price of land, savings they can use to make housing more affordable for their consumers.

Beyond developing assisted living centers, however, we should also look at creating better solutions for seniors to age in place—i.e., stay within their current homes. The barriers to this kind of arrangement are obvious; at the home, seniors lack access to the essential services including 24-7 monitoring and care, and socialization programs. Yet advancements in technology and other solutions have and continue to make this a viable alternative. Remote health monitoring, telehealth platforms, video calling, self-guided cognitive programs, house remodeling services—these represent a few of the solutions offered by in-home care providers and others. More and better solutions are needed in this arena; however, it serves as a complementary model that, when used in concert with assisted living communities, can help ensure seniors receive access to housing that works for them on their terms, and according to their stage of life.

Build robust healthcare services first and foremost

In the endless debate over whether the senior living industry should concentrate more on hospitality or healthcare, the answer is clearly healthcare. After all, health determines quality of life and the senior experience. The value of hospitality and its associated amenities doesn’t matter unless people maintain good health. And good health is the product of efficient, effective, and affordable healthcare services that achieve the following:

Empower seniors and their family members with real-time health information

This means providing seniors with insights about their health in real-time. Seniors can use this information to better manage their chronic conditions daily, preventing costly medical issues that occur when conditions like diabetes go unaddressed. They can also use this information to better understand the connection between behavior and health and adopt the lifestyles that prevent issues from occurring, thus keeping them out of the healthcare system as long and as frequently as possible. Together, this level of empowerment reduces the demands and costs placed on hospitals and providers, shoring up resources and capacity, while reducing expense.

Make healthcare costs transparent

This continues to be an area of need across the spectrum in healthcare. Seniors and their family members should gain the financial transparency to weigh the costs and benefits of healthcare services.

Related: Here’s The Greatest Barrier to Quality Health Care (and It’s Not Pre-Existing Conditions)

Maximize healthcare efficiencies

Unlike most technology solutions or businesses, healthcare is not scalable in many ways; a physician can only treat one patient at a time. However, that doesn’t mean all aspects of care cannot be scaled, beginning with the patient empowerment model discussed previously. There are also other areas where healthcare can become more efficient. This includes telehealth, which affords providers the ability to meet with patients across the globe, no matter the time of day. This eliminates important constraints in the delivery and consumption of care, including the need to travel. We need to continue to look at new ways to innovate and remodel how we provide healthcare, using technology as the vehicle.

Related: 4 Hot Tech Trends in Senior Care

Improve integrations with existing health systems and providers

The senior housing industry has made marked improvements in the kinds of healthcare services it provides. Still, the industry must depend on the existing healthcare system, and there remains significant room for improvement in how both industries coordinate. For more than a decade now, healthcare has made a slow and steady transition to value-based care, in which clinical and financial outcomes are inherently tied. For instance, hospitals face financial penalties when patients are discharged and then readmitted, as this represents a poor and often avoidable clinical outcome. Since senior housing providers are strong supporting actors in the healthcare narrative of their residents, it behooves them to understand and adapt to this transition. Healthcare providers will find greater incentive to integrate and collaborate with senior communities, leading to a better result for consumers and a more attractive value proposition.

Recruit, acquire, and retain top talent

It goes without saying that we in senior living need to develop a more effective system to acquire and retain talent. As technology becomes more prominent, our industry will have to look beyond itself to find the competencies needed. We need to develop a solid value proposition to employees and make this a core part of our external and internal messaging.

It also means that we need to establish a more effective system of onboarding and education. The more technology-dependent and sophisticated our industry becomes, the more we will need to build the capability to achieve organizational proficiency with respect to new systems.

In the book, Beyond Implementation, authors Heather Haugen and Charles Fred write about the four fundamental strategies organizations need to embrace to adopt new technology successfully, using the essential industry of healthcare as an example. Those strategies begin with effective leadership and continue with targeted and role-specific education, performance measurement and tracking, and ongoing sustainment of efforts to account for organizational and technological evolutions. Organizations in the senior living space will need to apply these same strategies to successfully maximize the value of technology over time.

If dignity is among our most valuable possessions and an aspect of life under siege for a substantial portion of our population, then how could we ignore the opportunity in front us? We have the chance to maximize consumer value on an unprecedented scale, through smart solutions and better business.

As an entrepreneur, I couldn’t ask for a more worthwhile challenge.


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