Senior couple holding hands with walking cane
(Credit: RUNSTUDIO / Getty Images)

Breaking the barriers to awareness of existing aging services and access to that care is the only way to help older adults seeking to “Age My Way,” according to a panel of experts speaking Thursday at a LeadingAge event. The event echoed the theme of Older Americans Month.

“Families and older adults are directly impacted when we don’t have the policy support we need to address the needs of a rapidly growing population,” LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan said. “We can do better. We must do better.”

Chance to reset the narrative

Although a general lack of awareness of the aging services sector isn’t new, Sloan said the pandemic created a chance to reset the narrative about the care and services available, as well as workforce opportunities.

A LeadingAge study of public perceptions found that fear and denial about aging play a role in shaping perceptions about the industry. The good news, Sloan said, is that the survey revealed that those who had experiences with the field of aging services were likely to have a positive view of services and providers. 

“The only way to achieve the mission of individual organizations and the sector at large is if we break through the noise with messages we know will resonate with the public,” she said, mentioning LeadingAge’s recently launched Keep Leading Life campaign to raise awareness of the long-term care options available to older adults. “It’s going to take a village, everyone working in alignment. It’s our duty to make sure older adults and their families better understand the choices they have and how to access them as they grow older,” she added.

Awareness of jobs needed

Workforce issues play into the barriers to awareness and access in long-term care, LeadingAge Director of Workforce Strategy and Development Jenna Kellerman said.

“You can only provide the services and care we focus on in the field to older Americans if we have the workforce to support it,” she said. “If people aren’t aware of the jobs in the field or the type of work we do, it’s hard to recruit professionals to the field.”

Those who work in the field often share meaningful experiences with older adults that led them to the field. Today, Kellerman said, many students are growing up without those interactions and experiences.

“If people don’t see us in the community, they’re not going to see us as a career option,” she said, adding that misunderstanding of career options in the field exists. Along with nursing, long-term care offers culinary, accounting, marketing, environmental services and housekeeping positions “rolled up into one mission-driven field.”

Workforce stability, Kellerman said, plays a big role in attracting workers, with paying a living wage key to addressing the workforce struggles in the sector.

Opportunities exist to improve what the long-term care sector does to become an employer of choice, she said, but a living wage needs to be a baseline in the field.

Sloan said that LeadingAge is asking the federal government to establish an array of staffing solutions, including an all-government approach that expands the pipeline of potential caregivers through immigration, training and apprenticeship programs. 

“The past few years have shown us our country has an insufficient and fractured aging services infrastructure in need of overhaul,” she said. “How the nation supports the system that supports older adults is a reflection of our values — without change, there is a misalignment of the needs of older adults we serve and the availability of workers.”

Affordable senior housing has ‘big gap’

LeadingAge Vice President of Housing Policy and Services Linda Couch focused on the affordable housing options available to older adults. Federal affordable senior housing programs serve more than 3 million older adult households, but Couch said that a Department of Housing and Urban Development report identified 2.2 million older adult households that qualify for HUD programs.

“That’s a big gap,” she said, adding that wait lists can stretch up to six years or longer. 

Most HUD funding for years only went to preserving existing affordable senior housing. The federal government, Couch said, has to be a central player at the table with resources and rents that older adults can afford to pay. 

“Federal funding is needed to drive development and bridge the gap between what older adults can afford to pay and what it costs to operate and maintain that housing,” Couch said. “Congress gets the value of these programs and started to fund new homes, but we’re really looking to ramp up those resources.”

“I envision a day when qualifying older adults are going to have an entitlement to housing help,” Couch said. “I envision a new normal when affordable senior housing programs are available to all who need them.”