For better or worse, Twitter can change the world. Altarum staff got a whiff of that potential last spring while participating in a regular Twitterchat (#eldercarechat). Someone tweeted the question of what we want government to do to improve the lives of the nation’s 60 million caregivers and added that we needed something like a Peace Corps—a community-based program to help the nation meet the needs of older adults in their own communities. From that tweet emerged the idea of a Caregiver Corps.
A Caregiver Corps could address important social issues, such as workforce development, economic security, intergenerational respect, skill-building, and national service. The program could forge new public–private partnerships, and it could bolster volunteer activities underway in many communities, relying on volunteers trained to serve in their own communities. Volunteers of all ages could offer time and talent to serve local needs for supporting older adults. The Corps would adapt to meet the particular needs of participating communities.
Why We Need a Caregiver Corps
Demographic trends point to a future that will leave families and their beloved elders overwhelmed by the challenges of living with old old age—that is, living past 80—with multiple chronic conditions. We need to work now to re-imagine a medical and social services system that can meet the needs of aging Americans and their caregivers. Millions of families work each day to figure out just what they can do to provide loving, attentive, and supportive care. They could use some help.
The nation now faces a profound shortage of people trained in geriatric care, from geriatricians to nurses to direct care workers. These shortages stem, in part, from the relatively low pay geriatricians earn and the outright unlivable wage direct care workers receive. According to one estimate, by 2030, when all of the Boomers are in their dotage, there will be one geriatrician for every 20,000 older adults.
A Caregiver Corps: Hope—and Help—for Us All
What’s a country to do? Launch a Caregiver Corps. Such a program could be built on insights from similar valuable, successful, and long-lived volunteer efforts. Americans have long volunteered to help one another. The Caregiver Corps could tap that spirit of cooperation to recruit volunteers of all ages: high school graduates not yet trained for the workforce; college graduates facing a tough economy and mounting undergraduate debt; and older adults still eager to contribute to their communities.
Volunteers could enroll for full- or part-time “tours of duty,” and would undergo an application and screening process. In exchange for their service, they could earn tuition credits or some degree of loan forgiveness; receive a modest stipend; or bank volunteer hours against a time when they need help themselves. Volunteers would be assigned to community-based organizations that serve older adults, such as Area Agencies on Aging, non-profit health care organizations, social services agencies, and others. In fact, every community could tailor volunteer opportunities to meet its own most pressing needs—recruiting volunteers whose specific skills and interests align with what their communities need. Volunteers could apply for positions that appeal to their own interests, strengths, and experiences.
While volunteers could offer enthusiasm, compassion, and insight, they could also learn the skills that improve the quality of life for older adults and their families, both by interacting with these individuals and by supporting programs that serve them.
Some volunteers could learn about the public policies that affect that care. Many could be exposed to older people and bridge the generational gap that threatens to split our country. In the end, some volunteers might even be inspired to pursue a career in one of the caring professions whose workers will be essential to how we collectively experience aging.
We have no shared, cultural experience of living with so many old people, all at one time. Transforming personal experience into something on which we can build programs that serve a collective good is essential to forging a future we can live with. Finding ways to engage and support people who have the skills, resources, and motivation to help is in everyone’s self-interest.
The question before us is simply how.