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Health Care Prepares for Growth in Older Population


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By Melissa Wirkus Hagstrom, contributor

It’s true: we’re all getting older. But recently released statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show that it’s all happening a bit faster than expected. In fact, the nation's 65-and-older population is projected to reach 83.7 million in the year 2050, almost double the 2012 level of 43.1 million.

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Jennifer Ortman, chief of the Census Bureau's population projections branch, said that by 2030, 1 in 5 Americans will be 65 or older.  This seems to follow a worldwide trend, because, she added, “Our nation is [still] projected to remain one of the youngest of the developed countries.”

Ortman co-authored the bureau’s two newest reports on the country’s aging population. The first, An Aging Nation: The Older Population in the United States, looks at the demographic changes to the 65-and-older population and the impact that these changes will have on the composition of the total population. The second, The Baby Boom Cohort in the United States: 2012 to 2060, focuses on the shifting size and structure of the baby boom population.

Baby boomers are classified as individuals born in the United States between mid-1946 and mid-1964.

“I think the thing that we certainly see that is very interesting going on in our projections is that we are seeing the baby boomers aging into that older category and age group,” Ortman explained. “That growth between now and 2030 is very much driven by the baby boomers entering the 65-plus age group. The baby boom cohort has been driving changes in the population since their birth and arrival, and they are projected to continue to do so over the next few decades.”

So how is the health care industry going to support this tremendous growth? An aging population, along with their co-morbidities, chronic diseases and special health concerns will undoubtedly increase the need for nurses and other health care resources in the future.

Ellen Flaherty, PhD, APRN, AGSF, faculty at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and an officer at the American Geriatrics Society (AGS), said that as the population ages, we will see an increase in the over-65 population and an exponential increase in the over-85 population.

“Certainly it is this older population that is going to need the most services in terms of nursing care,” Flaherty said. “An increase in not only nurses but other nursing personnel will be critical to meet the needs of this population that has a lot of co-morbidities including cognitive impairment.”

Flaherty said the first step in meeting the health care needs of our growing older population is to “think smarter” by leveraging technology and other resources.

“I think we need to think about population health and specifically be able to identify the patients who need the most care through data and technology in order to achieve the best patient outcomes,” she said. “We want to help this population stay in the community and out of the emergency room and hospital and we need to identify nursing’s role in all of this.”

Nurses without a specific geriatrics background can work to expand their scope by taking courses and online learning modules that are specifically geared toward caring for this unique population. Models of caring for dementia patients in the community and models that focus on reducing falls can be great educational resources for nurses.

Both the AGS and the federally funded Geriatric Education Centers have a variety of resources, programs and educational materials on hand. Additional resources related to caring for this older population are available from groups like the American Nurses Association (ANA) and continuing education providers like RN.com.

The demand for health care services catering to our older population will present many new professional opportunities for nurses, Flaherty said. “As the ‘silver tsunami’ approaches, the boomers age, and the 85-and-older population grows, if we stick to the models we use right now, it’s just not going to be adequate to provide the care. We have to think innovatively and we have to think about technology and how nurses can use technology to monitor a larger cohort of patients in the community.”

According to the most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for registered nurses is good, fueled in part by the growth of the aging population. The projected growth rate in employment for RNs from 2012 to 2022 is 19 percent, which is 8 percent faster than the average growth rate for all occupations.

“Our population projections provide insight into how the nation might change in the coming years,” Ortman concluded. “So information on how the population may change over the next few decades is a resource we’re providing to those who seek to anticipate what the demands and needs for health care may be in the future.”

Travel nurses are uniquely positioned to help meet the growing demand with their broad skill set and exposure to many different types of patient populations--especially as hospitals adopt more flexible staffing models to accommodate the ever-shifting patient population.

“Nurses need to think about how they can expand their reach. We are never going to have enough nurses to go around, so we need to think about how they can expand their services to a larger population in part by using technology and new models of care,” Flaherty concluded.



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