The aging population of the United States is widely reported as the bulk of the baby boomer generation is already retired or nearing retirement. However, what has not been widely reported is how the rest of the nation will provide care for this large, aging population. According to a 2017 Merrill Lynch study, nearly 95% of caregivers are family members. These family members are providing over $500 billion worth of free care annually. For perspective, that’s three times Medicaid’s professional long term care spending. The number of family caregivers is shrinking at a time when the population that needs them is expanding at a rapid rate. In 2020, there will be over 56 million people in the U.S. age 65 and older. In 2010, that number was just 40 million.
This is a unique problem for the baby boomer generation for several reasons. The main reason is the simple fact that there is just an unusually large number of people in this generation. Unfortunately, every elder who needs care will not have a family member willing to give care. This responsibility will then fall to professional home care workers. Government statisticians project that the nation will need an additional million home care workers by 2026, an increase of 50% from 2014. Fulfilling the need for this many additional workers will be difficult, however.
Home care workers face extremely low wages, inconsistent work schedules, and there is little, if any, room for advancement in the industry. For example, the median salary for a home care worker is a minuscule $10.66/hour according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For comparison, that’s about the same hourly wage as a fast-food cook and about 30% less per hour than a veterinary technician makes. Looking beyond just salary, benefits are dismal, also. Only a third of home care workers are full-time and qualify for benefits. Further, there is a better chance you get injured on the job as a home care worker than if you worked in the oil and gas extraction field.
Another reason why this is such a unique problem for baby boomers is that it was more common in the past for children to stay in the same geographic area as their parents and be able to provide free care to them when it was needed. With advancements in travel and technology, it has become exponentially easier for people to move away from their parents, whether it be for job seeking reasons or simply for a change of scenery. Also, with the increasing rate of debt Americans are taking on, some family members just do not have the means to take time away from work to care for ailing family members.
There are several small initiatives taking place to help combat this shortage. In Massachusetts, the Home Aide Care Council has started a two-week training program that introduces new home care workers to what the job entails before they start their formal training as a home care worker. Also, some states are starting programs that provide opportunities for advancement. New York has a program that trains home care workers to administer routine medication, which gives them experience that can help them move into other positions in the healthcare industry.