June 20, 2018
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As boomers hit old age, a new nursing home model is needed

There’s no denying baby boomers challenged and reinvented many of life’s conventions.

Getting a job after school? Maybe not; maybe a backpacking trip through Europe first. Climbing the career ladder into the upper-income zone? No, job satisfaction is more important.

Marrying? Maybe after living together for a time. Setting aside sports, surfing, running, hiking and dancing at 50? No way.

But there’s one phase of life boomers may not be able redefine. They will age, decline, fall ill and die, like every generation before them. Those who are younger must face the burden of caring for these 76 million Americans, the oldest of whom are now hitting their mid-60s.

Will hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and home health care systems be up to the task? As they are now configured, probably not.

A recent BDN story reported on a non-boomer’s attempt to learn about life in a nursing home as a way to be better at serving those who do live there. Kara Janes, 44, of Castine, played the part of nursing home resident, even confining herself to a wheelchair, immobilizing one arm and having an oxygen tube affixed to her nose. She remained cut off from family and friends for 10 days as part of the educational exercise, which is part of her graduate education.

Ms. Janes reported feeling isolated, lonely and depressed, embarrassed about having to be helped in the bathroom. “You lose your independence,” she told BDN Health Editor Meg Haskell. “You can’t think for yourself. Everything is done for you.” Though adjusting to this dependent life is hard for all people, baby boomers are especially likely to struggle to accept it.

Nursing home staff say residents typically rebound from their initial social and emotional shock and integrate into their new life.

But given the sheer number of people needing such care in the coming decades, it may be time to reinvent this model. And if millions of boomers suffer from Alzheimer’s, the system may be stretched beyond what it can bear.

Increasingly, health care is investigating “aging in place,” an approach that seeks to keep seniors at home and bring the services they need to them. That approach will be difficult to apply to critical care, such as that offered in nursing homes. This is why innovating now is essential.

Exploring such ideas as cluster housing which would allow younger people to help care for seniors in the same residential complex, or offering younger people cheap housing in exchange for living with elderly people may offer solutions. So, too, would training family members to care for their elders.

But far bolder reinventions are needed, or millions of boomers could face poor institutional care in their last years.

And so, in a way, baby boomers will — yet again — reinvent a phase of life.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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