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American Is at the Nexus of Aging and Multiculturalism
posted 06.13.2011

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the March–April, 2011, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering advances in research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store

Fernando Torres-Gil and Diana Lam

The United States, like other nations, is now experiencing a “silver” tsunami. And, as has occurred in other countries, we’ve seen this tidal force coming, but are not prepared for it.

Millions of native-born baby boomers started turning age 65 this year. By 2032, there will be more people alive over the age of 65 than under the age of 15: there will be more older adults than children. And between now and 2050, the entire age 65-plus population will increase from 13% to 20%.

Beyond the realities of these numbers, there is the fact of diversity to consider. For America, broad diversity among older population groups is an enormous factor—one that hasn’t been adequately addressed. The native-born population of baby boomers is augmented by people who have, in recent years, migrated to America. This immigration is expanding the number of baby boomers—most notably, there is a cohort of 8 million baby boomers hidden within the rapidly growing Latino population.

According to research, Hispanic, Asian and black populations all will experience major growth by mid-century. Projections indicate Hispanic growth by 188%, Asian growth by 213% and black population growth by 71%. Around the same time, non-Hispanic whites will cease to be the majority population in America.

Longevity: The Upside and Downside

On one hand, it’s exciting that people are living longer and, for the most part, healthier lives. Many people well past age 65 have no thoughts of retirement. As we recover from the recession, some older adults have come out of retirement, searching for employment to bolster diminished nest eggs. Switching careers, returning to school or taking on volunteer opportunities in hopes of landing a new position—or simply staying engaged in their communities—have become part of the “new normal” for people over age 50.

Yet, on the other hand, living longer inevitably raises a host of unique concerns. Longer lifespans mean increasing healthcare costs and needs as people become more susceptible to chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Increased longevity raises concerns about outliving financial resources, loss of independence and control, and fears of isolation.

Bonus years for the largest senior population ever also mean there is an increased need for in-home care providers—especially family caregivers, who may have health issues of their own and are often overlooked as key players in the caregiving network. Caregivers need guidance and assistance to care for loved ones’ needs. But caregivers also need support with respect to income, respite, and physical, emotional and mental health.

Elders who have recently come to America, or who have significantly different backgrounds, may find dealing with these challenges while trying to navigate an unfamiliar culture overwhelming—not only for themselves but for younger family members who may not speak English.

As the elder population grows larger, so does the gaping hole, a rift caused by out-of-date policies and a lack of products, services, benefits and resources necessary to serve older Americans. America has been stuck—polarized about what, when and how to implement overarching social changes to address the needs of a swelling older population.

What will it take to fill the hole in this new and changing America—a place where aging and multiculturalism are dovetailing to create a critical 21st century test of our compassion, support and care for our oldest populations?

Steps to Shape the Future

Closing the hole will take nothing less than proactively advocating for extensive social change. On many levels, that’s a profound challenge in the current economic and political climate. But one size won’t fit all. There is no “business as usual” with a task of this magnitude. We’ll be making history, but time is short, with leading-edge boomers turning 65 this year.

As we embark on the massive undertaking of changing laws and policies (which rarely happens quickly), we shouldn’t miss out on taking the following common-sense steps that can go a long way toward shaping future changes:

Train geriatric specialists. We’ve never had a greater need for people specializing in elders’ health needs. We must address the shortage of geriatric specialists: doctors, researchers, social workers, administrators, therapists, nurses and aides. We need geriatricians just as we need pediatricians.

Train in cultural competence. Care providers responsible for older patients and clients, whether these people are served in hospitals, private homes, nursing homes or community settings, will increasingly interact with people from different cultures. Providers must be able to interact effectively by learning to manage language barriers and demonstrating sensitivity, understanding and respect for cultural differences. These skills improve provider effectiveness.

Rethink housing options. Most people prefer to stay in their own home or community as they age. AARP research consistently finds that this is the preference of nearly nine out of ten households. Family or private caregivers can make this possible and, increasingly, Medicaid funding for home- and community-based services rather than nursing home care is available in some states. Village models, which rely heavily on volunteers from within and outside the community, add another twist: community members (who don’t have to be elders) incorporate into a nonprofit and pay a yearly fee, with the monies used for providing support and services, such as transportation, meals, in-home care and housekeeping, to older members.

Increase nonprofit involvement in elder programs.The level of compassionate care provided to patients can be improved by removing the profit element present in most nursing home administrations. Local agencies, religious groups and charities engaging in these programs would create additional opportunities for people to remain in their communities and receive services delivered with greater care.

Tap into the value of older workers. Increased longevity and better health mean that people over age 65 may have many more years of productive work ahead. Older workers can help cover the approaching dearth of younger workers, filling jobs vacated by retirees. AARP has long acknowledged companies that value older workers through its Best Employers for Workers Over 50 awards. These companies utilize best practices to hire, retain and retrain older workers.

Encourage volunteerism. Older people should be championed as a valuable volunteer resource, but younger people also should be encouraged to volunteer to work on behalf of senior programs and services or other civic programs in a formal service corps.

Share responsibility. Caring for elders in our society with dignity and respect isn’t just the government’s job, the private sector’s job or the individual’s job. It’s a shared responsibility and everyone needs to be involved.

These recommendations are not the far-reaching and necessary policy shifts required to revamp laws affecting social programs, civil rights, disability issues, healthcare or financialsecurity. But they are examples of constructive approaches we can take—as private citizens, community groups, businesses, educational institutes and professionals—that move us closer to the inevitable and herculean task of shaping laws to better serve our changing society.

America isn’t the only nation experiencing phenomenal growth of cultural diversity and an older population: we can look beyond our borders for workable solutions. What we must not do is wait, for the nexus of aging and multiculturalism is already here.

Dr. Fernando Torres-Gil, an expert in health and long-term care, aging, social policy, ethnicity and disability, serves on AARP’s Board of Directors. He is professor of social welfare and public policy director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging at UCLA’s School of Public Affairs. Diana Lam is a graduate research assistant at UCLA’s School of Public Affairs.

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