The golden opportunity of the silver tsunami


My maternal grandmother, Johanna Abrahams, z’l, spent the last few years of her life in a spiraling descent of slowly progressing dementia. Born a century ago, she was an early trailblazer — a university graduate, a community leader, a wife, mother and grandmother who held our family together while moving across the country as my grandfather, a career Army officer, was transferred from base to base.

Her dementia started, as most do, with forgetfulness — now often euphemized as “senior moments” — with much of the weight of her growing inability to function falling upon my grandfather, nearly 10 years older than she, who became her primary caregiver. The stress on him and our entire family, as this very strong and articulate woman became a shadow of herself, was nearly unbearable. Every visit with her had a few moments of amazing lucidity, surrounded by far more moments of confusion and bewilderment.

When my grandfather fell in a parking lot, breaking his hip, he could no longer provide the care my grandmother needed. She started in an assistive living facility and quickly regressed into an adjacent nursing home — all the while as my grandfather was in a rehabilitation center after his hip surgery.

The costs were formidable; the stresses on our entire family profound.

Stories like theirs are not unusual. As we face what’s become known as the silver tsunami, the aging of the 77 million American baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964, soaring long-term care costs will leverage the future for our children and grandchildren by putting their own American dream at risk. Just a decade from now, the boomers will range in age from 59 to 79.

Late last month, the U.S. Commission on Long-Term Care, created in response to the coming tsunami, released its recommendations for improving the delivery system of care for Americans who are, or will be, in need of long-term supports and services. Among the report’s recommendations are building a system that provides options for people who want to live in the community, ensuring that individuals and their family caregivers have access to information on choices of long-term service available to them, and encouraging voluntary community efforts to create and sustain livable communities and aging-in-place support programs.

The Jewish Federations of North America has focused on these challenges for years, largely because of our age demographics. According to a 2001 study, 19 percent of the American Jewish population was 65 or older, as opposed to about 13 percent of the general American population. For more than a decade, our dynamic network of Jewish Federations has developed and implemented innovative programs that promote the ability of older adults to age in place in their own homes and communities, while also promoting the health and well-being of family caregivers who, often putting their own needs aside — as first my aunt and uncle and then my parents did for my grandfather — provide the majority of care to older adults and individuals with cognitive and functional impairments.

This is not a finite project. Our population is aging and will continue to do so.

Over the coming years, we will rededicate ourselves to educating, engaging and — most importantly — empowering members of our community to seek answers from our nation’s elected leadership, financial services professions, providers, and other stakeholders on solutions to our nation’s long-term care challenges. Jewish-Americans have faced difficult challenges in the past and we have surmounted them through dedication and ingenuity. This challenge gives us the opportunity to make a profound difference, not just for our people, but also for all of our nation’s citizens.

The recommendations made by the U.S. Commission on Long-Term Care are good first steps, but there is more work to be done. The Jewish community can continue leading on this issue by coming together and advocating for a pragmatic pathway to success for a long-term care plan, which offers common sense delivery options for those in need and practical ways to pay for them. Let’s embrace this chance and turn the challenges of meeting the needs of the silver tsunami into a golden opportunity.

William Daroff is vice president of public policy and director of the Washington office of The Jewish Federations of North America.

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