James Balda headshot
James Balda

Feb. 17, Argentum joined the rest of the country in taking time to celebrate the compassionate and dedicated caregivers who are the backbone of the senior living industry.

First recognized in 2016, National Caregivers Day honors the millions of healthcare professionals across the country. Those frontline caregivers are unsung heroes who have endured so much over the past three years, especially in long-term care, providing care to our most vulnerable seniors during a global pandemic.

Sadly, this year’s National Caregivers Day found us in the midst of a record healthcare workforce shortage. Policymakers have long focused on nurse and physician shortages but haven’t focused enough on long-term care. This was evident in a hearing last week by the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee that focused primarily on workforce challenges facing physician, nurse, dental and mental health providers. Shortages in the long-term care industry are projected to eclipse those in all other healthcare sectors, however.

Currently, there is a shortage of 400,000 senior caregivers, and that number will only continue to grow. In fact, by 2040, we will need more than 20 million new workers to care for our nation’s seniors.

Within the broader long-term care sector, shortages in the “senior living” workforce (assisted living, memory care and independent living) objectively are the most acute. The senior living industry lost more than 100,000 positions in the first 20 months of the pandemic, leaving the industry far below its pre-pandemic employment levels. Although the hospital and home healthcare sectors are closer to returning to pre-pandemic employment, the senior living workforce currently is at its lowest levels since May 2015. Today, 96% of senior living communities are facing staff shortages, and 61% are concerned that the staffing shortages might force them to close.

The United States is on the precipice of a seismic shift that will transform our population from an aging population to an aged population. The US population is aging more rapidly than ever before in our history. The population of Americans aged 65 and older increased from 40.5 million in 2010 to 55.7 million in 2020 (a 38% increase) and is projected to reach 94.7 million in 2060. By 2040, there will be roughly 81 million older persons, more than twice as many as in 2000.

Since most older Americans have at least one chronic condition (and many have multiple conditions), an estimated 70% of will need some form of long-term care in their lifetimes. That is, they will need a caregiver. But will they be able to find one?

The senior living workforce shortage is at crisis levels now, but if policymakers fail to act, it will become a catastrophic crisis. Much can be done to prevent this, including developing workforce pipelines and training programs outlining the benefits and fulfillment of geriatric care. As another National Caregivers Day passes, in addition to remembering the compassionate and dedicated caregivers our country has been blessed with, we all should call on policymakers to do more to resolve our workforce crisis. Those who need care the most deserve it.

James Balda is the president and CEO of Argentum.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living guest column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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