Mary Helen McSweeney-Feld
Mary Helen McSweeney-Feld

As we enter the holiday season, AARP’s recent report on caregiving highlights the impact of changing demographics in American households: there will be dramatic shortages of paid and unpaid caregivers by 2050 in the US.

The “caregiver support ratio”, defined as the number of potential caregivers aged 45-64 for each person aged 80 and older, is predicted to decline from a ratio of 7 to 1 in 2010 to 4 to 1 by 2030, and 3 to 1 by 2050. More individuals will be seeking to balance caregiving responsibilities with their employment, which may lead to increasing stress on family members and financial resources. 

However, there are other trends that may help to soften the impact of this development.   Boomers are better educated, will be viewing their Social Security statements online and may be staying in the workforce longer to preserve their retirement funds. Research by the Pew Research Center showed that individuals living with chronic health conditions that have access to the Internet track their weight, diet and exercise as well as health indicators such as blood pressure, blood sugar, sleep patterns or headaches, and these activities have a positive impact on their health status as well as the way that they care for someone else. More than half of those over age 65 are online, and these information seekers are better educated and wealthier. Combine these facts with growing numbers of individuals over 65 using social media to make health decisions, and we may see a Boomer population that is able to manage their health needs creatively with the help of assistive technology.

Caregivers of all types will always be needed, especially for individuals with multiple complex, chronic health conditions. However, the power of social media to make informed decisions about health should be acknowledged. Better management of the health needs of individuals with disabilities across all age groups can take place if access to the Internet through low cost devices and training is expanded to all individuals regardless of education, income and health status. Expanding internet access can also provide new business opportunities for long-term care organizations seeking to diversify their services and offer support for consumers choosing to stay in their communities. We can redefine the concept of caregiving to include low access to technology services and devices, and find creative solutions for caregivers, families and their loved ones.

Mary Helen McSweeney-Feld, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Health Care Management Program, College of Health Professions, at Towson University in Towson, Maryland. She is a member of the American College of Health Care Administrators’ Academy of Long-Term Care Leadership and Development, and a member of the National Association of Long-Term Care Administrator Boards’ Education Committee.