As the population of aging individuals continues to grow, is the healthcare system ready to face the challenge?
With increasing life expectancy and declining birth rates, the world’s population is aging rapidly. According to the World Health Organization, “the number of persons aged 80 years or older is expected to triple between 2020 and 2050 to reach 426 million.” By 2030, the share of the population aged 60 years and over will reach 1.4 billion, from 1 billion in 2020. And by 2050, it will double to 2.1 billion. This significant demographic shift brings a whole range of unique health concerns that healthcare professionals must address, including the common health conditions associated with an aging population, the factors that affect healthy aging, the challenges inherent in responding to the changing population demographics, and how all these factors can be addressed to improve the health and well-being of all.
Common health conditions associated with aging
The elderly are more likely to be affected by a range of physical and mental health conditions. These can have a major impact on the person’s quality of life, and they may require specialized care around the clock. As people grow older, they may experience several conditions simultaneously, making them more difficult to manage.
Physical health conditions
Arthritis, osteoporosis, and vision and hearing impairment are some of the common physical conditions that affect older individuals. Arthritis leads to joint pain, stiffness, and swelling, making it difficult for individuals to carry out routine activities, such as walking or dressing. Osteoporosis makes the bones weak and brittle, thereby increasing the risk of fractures, especially when falls are a significant concern for older people. Vision and hearing impairment can also significantly impact their lifestyle, making it difficult to communicate with others, carry out routine tasks, participate in social activities, and more.
Mental health conditions
Depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s are some of the common mental health conditions among older individuals. Depression can result in feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and a loss of interest in life. Dementia is a more progressive condition that impacts memory, behavior, and thinking abilities.
Factors impacting healthy aging
With the longer life expectancy, older individuals have more opportunities to pursue new activities and contribute to their families and society. However, the extent of contribution is largely dependent on their health. If people are in good health, they are supported in the community and can enjoy their additional years. But, if their health declines, the impact on themselves and society is quite negative.
A range of factors can influence healthy aging, including lifestyle, physical and social environment, personal characteristics, and socioeconomic status. Each of these factors can have long-term effects on how people age.
A positive social and physical environment can impact an individual’s health directly or indirectly through incentives or barriers that may affect decisions, behaviors, and opportunities.
To maintain healthy aging, engaging in healthy behaviors such as regular physical activity, consuming a balanced diet, and refraining from substance abuse are important. These behaviors can help lower the risk of non-communicable diseases, delay self-care dependency, and improve physical and mental capacity.
Challenges in responding to the healthcare needs of an aging population
The aging population creates several challenges that healthcare professionals and policymakers must address.
Increasing demand for healthcare services
As the population continues to age, there is an increasing demand for healthcare services. Older individuals are more likely to need healthcare support for chronic conditions like heart disease, dementia, and others. They might also need continued long-term support for rehabilitation or even support for disease management. This increased demand for healthcare services will create a strain on healthcare systems. It may lead to longer wait times for procedures and booking appointments. Because of all this, healthcare costs will also increase.
Shortage of geriatric-care-trained healthcare professionals
There will be an increased requirement for healthcare professionals trained in geriatric care to support all the needs and requirements of older individuals. And this will continue to increase as the aging population becomes older, changing the whole demographic landscape of the healthcare industry. However, at the moment, there is a shortage of specialized healthcare professionals trained to manage and treat the ailments of older individuals. This shortage of qualified physicians, nurses, and other allied health professionals is expected to worsen in the upcoming years as the aging population continues to rise.
Funding and resource allocation challenges
Addressing the requirements and healthcare demands of the aging population requires significant funding and resources. Healthcare systems need to allocate resources so the current shortage and absence of any specialized geriatric care program can be fulfilled. Specialized services and programs for the aging population are needed, such as home healthcare services, long-term care facilities, and geriatric clinics. However, implementing all this is not easy as it requires a significant among of funding, which is mostly limited. Limited funding leads to a lack of resources and no access to specialized care for older individuals.
There are other issues that also impact the health concerns of an aging population, such as social isolation and agism. Social isolation can lead to depression and a decline in cognitive activities, which results in many other health problems. Agism means that there is a certain level of discrimination and lack of access to healthcare and services for older individuals.
Addressing the unique health concerns of an aging population
To address these challenges, healthcare professionals and policymakers must work in tandem to create and implement strategies that promote healthier lifestyles that result in better aging. Professionals and policymakers need to increase access to specialized care, reduce social isolation, and prevent agism. This may involve increasing the funding for geriatric care programs and services, providing training and education for healthcare professionals specializing in geriatric care, and creating programs that promote social connections and deal with agism.
Interdisciplinary care teams
Older individuals usually have complicated medical needs that require specialized care from different healthcare providers. Creating interdisciplinary care teams, which may include nurses, physicians, social workers, and other allied healthcare professionals, will help provide comprehensive care for older individuals. This collaborative approach will improve care coordination, improve health outcomes for older individuals, and reduce healthcare costs.
Providing culturally sensitive care
Like any other population, older individuals have diverse cultural backgrounds. Healthcare professionals must be aware of and sensitive to these differences. Being culturally sensitive involves understanding and respecting these individuals’ values, beliefs, and traditions, and customizing the care plan to meet their unique requirements. This particular treatment approach will improve patient satisfaction, offer better health outcomes, and help reduce health disparities.
Opting for patient-centered care will help place the patient at the center of the care process and involve them in every single decision made regarding their treatment, just like providing culturally sensitive care. Tailoring patient care will improve patient health outcomes and satisfaction, increase adherence to treatment, and reduce the chances of errors. It may also include offering education and resources to older adults to manage their health and prevent the onset of chronic conditions that require round-the-clock care.
Healthcare professionals can play a critical role in promoting preventative care and helping older individuals maintain their health by detecting and addressing potential health problems before they became critical. An aging population will benefit from preventive care measures such as regular health screenings, vaccinations, and lifestyle changes. These measures can help promote healthy aging, thereby reducing the chances of being affected by old-age-related ailments.
Creating an adequately prepared workforce
It is important that the policymakers and government plan and strategically support the creation of a qualified workforce. This can involve offering scholarships, loan forgiveness, and internships to qualified individuals so students are more likely to choose healthcare as a profession. They should also put in the effort to train the current workforce so they can modernize their skills and keep up with the demands of the changing demographics.
Interested individuals can pursue associate nursing degree options such as an ADN or ASN from reputed and accredited universities to meet the shortage of professionals. The online AGPCNP program from Spring Arbor University, for example, will help the transition to providing a full range of primary care services. In this specialized NP position, nurses will be able to work in a variety of healthcare settings, including inpatient and outpatient clinics, community health centers, and private group practices.
Creating new approaches to care delivery
It is also important to create new approaches to care delivery as not all older individuals are mobile and able to travel distance to reach healthcare facilities. Options like remote care and telehealth can offer better health coverage to an aging population, irrespective of their mobility issues. The right balance between in-person care and these new innovative technologies will help improve healthcare conditions for an aging population.
Redesigning long-term services
Most older individuals require long-term services and support to manage their conditions. Healthcare professionals can work on testing and adopting successful innovations and payment models to expand services, thus improving the quality of care given to older individuals. An option to choose between aging in their place and residing in an institutional setting should be provided.
Reduce disparities and inequities
Older individuals sometimes face discrimination from healthcare professionals and others in the community. Policymakers and healthcare professionals must work on overcoming these social, structural, and economic obstacles. Creating cross-agency committees to implement policies and programs can help address these disparities in the optimal health and well-being of older individuals.
Healthcare professionals need to address the unique health concerns and challenges that come with aging, a natural and inevitable process. Doing so will ensure that as the world’s population continues to age, they have access to quality care, allowing them to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.
Challenges in responding to population aging include the increasing demand for healthcare services, a shortage of healthcare professionals trained in geriatric care, and funding and resource allocation challenges. Addressing these challenges will require the involvement of policymakers, healthcare professionals, and the broader community.
It is essential to recognize the opportunities that a longer life provides, and work to ensure that the aging population can live healthily and continue to contribute to society.