Before chemistry was ‘chemistry’ there was alchemy. Alchemists sought to change gray lead into gold, well, gold. Sounds reasonable. The atomic number of lead is 82. Gold’s atomic number is 79. So close – but close was not good enough then and it is not good enough now. A phrase, and variations of it, that I am sure you’ve heard describe the senior care industry both in the United States and globally is 'gray is the new gold'.
Many writers have written, and I’m sure will for a long time to come, write about how senior care and related older adult housing can be a growth opportunity for investment as well as job creation worldwide. But before we see gold at the end of the aging rainbow we should realize the growth of an aging population requires innovation first before we achieve true improvements in quality of life or return on investment.
The senior care industry requires an overhaul. With noble intent it was built on yesterday’s language (senior care?), definition of aging, care models, organizational structures and technologies. Repainting yesterday’s facilities and computerizing yesterday’s shuffleboard is not enough. To achieve improved outcomes in quality of life as well as higher investment returns requires more than simply buying more real estate, hiring more staff and purchasing IT systems to improve administration –it demands new thinking to reinvent the types of services provided, technologies to be used, financial products available to individuals and families, workforce education, and organizational structures to deliver quality care and achieve quality outcomes.
Here are a few areas to start today – and given the growing demand for aging services – we should have started yesterday:
- Invent new and responsive services with partners outside the walls of the traditional senior care industry that may eventually lead community-dwelling older adults to older adult communities by choice or need. This means the integration of health and well-being, independent living support, social engagement, home maintenance and modification services to serve and extend the ability of older adults to stay in their own homes for as long as possible.
- Identify where technology can be creatively and practically integrated into the development of new services (not just savings on administrative costs) to care for older adults, support their families, educate personnel, and reduce the stresses and strains on staff and clinicians
- Create new financial products and relationships with financial advisors, banks, insurers and financial product manufacturers that go beyond the current offerings of long-term care insurance to engage people at a young age to save, invest and draw down upon the financial resources necessary for them to support their roles as family caregivers and eventually as receivers of care etc.
- Build a new educational and training infrastructure with high schools, community colleges and professional programs across the 'allied care professions' to refresh the current senior care industry workforce and to create the next generation workforce that will require skills in the daily love of caregiving but also in the management of eldercare complexity, creative financing, and the selection and daily use of new technologies in community as well as facility settings that will deliver services from a wide range of providers that may be near and far.
- Establish new organizational business models to develop and deliver senior care both in the community and in established industry settings. For some, this may be a private-sector innovation alone, in other regions around the world this may require a far more creative blending of public, private and voluntary sectors to deliver integrated solutions and not individual services. Where government has the resources and is the most influential institution, e.g., China, new public programs and investments in new agencies that know how to leverage technology and respond to the new needs of old age will be necessary.
Yes, aging is opportunity. It is an opportunity to improve the quality of life of older adults today and all of us tomorrow. It is also an opportunity for job creation, business growth and government policy innovation. But, we can not expect the trend line of global aging alone to deliver transformative change. The disruptive demographics of aging is a challenge for business and government to think differently, invest in the new, and create 'the better' – urgent action today will greatly increase the likelihood of transforming old gray into the new gold.