The Silver Tsunami

Alumni and faculty discuss the aging of Baby Boomers and how to help people ‘age well.’

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More than 25 years ago, Jack Lynch’s mom was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s and other health challenges. She was in her 60s. 

“What became very clear to me was the intense stress put on family and friends in that type of situation,” said Lynch ’83. 

Although his mom passed away 20 years ago, Lynch was recently reminded of those intense years when his father and sisters were caring for his mom. As he was fielding phone calls from seniors and their caretakers in his position as the CEO of Main Line Health in Philadelphia, he thought of his own family. 

“I became even more aware of the needs of those with aging parents,” recalled Lynch, who ultimately decided to add a senior-level position in his company to cater to the rising aging population and its needs. 

The aging of Baby Boomers, those born from 1946-1964, is creating an unprecedented need for senior-care service professionals. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), by 2030, the number of those 65 or older will more than double. Americans are living longer, said the CDC, which is focused on preventing and controlling “chronic diseases so that these added years translate into quality years.” 

This “silver tsunami,” as this aging and retirement of older Americans is sometimes called, is putting pressure on health care systems throughout the country.

The Sandwich Generation

Baby Boomers are often caregivers to their elderly parents, and some individuals in this generation are beginning to experience their own health issues. Whether it’s the former, the latter or both, there are resources to be had, but it can be confusing where to find them. Lynch noticed that missing piece of the puzzle. 

In addition to taking care of their parents, Baby Boomers are often taking care of their children, and even their grandchildren. The “sandwich generation” is caregiving, in one way or another, around the clock. 

“There’s an essential community need, and there are a lot of people who are falling through the cracks,” said Lynch. 

Once he identified this need, Lynch created a system director of senior services position at Main Line Health. He and his team conducted a national search to find the most qualified candidate, who happened to be fellow alumnus Brian Duke ’79, former secretary of aging of Pennsylvania (the nation’s fourth-grayist state).

“With the volume of people aging,” said Duke, “we have to make sure we provide care at the right time, in the right setting, in the right way and with the right intensity.” 

Duke participated in the University’s 2012 Conference on Aging, which integrates academic findings on aging with practical applications and, more important, facilitates creative collaboration among practitioners, health care institutions and universities. 

According to Duke, who has now been at Main Line Health for a year, the key to connecting people to resources is creating a dialogue about “what it means to grow older, and grow older well.”  

“Sometimes, an older person takes his or her time telling you something. Don’t rush it; you may miss it." 

Initiating a Dialogue

Duke and his team work hard to initiate a dialogue about their patients' — and their caregivers' — futures. Thanks to their senior-care navigation health line, patients are able to describe their unique situation, then the team determines their best course of action. 

“Sometimes, patients simply describe what they’re living through. They don’t know where to start. We spend time helping people form their questions,” said Duke. 

The team’s ultimate goal is to reduce the risk of hospital readmission, which is more complex than it sounds. Reducing risk involves addressing both the medical and social aspects of a person’s life. For example, a patient might be discharged with a prescription and a list of appointments but have no way of getting to those appointments. The team refers patients to resources that will help them with everything from prescription schedules to transportation. 

“It’s really about staying with people,” said Duke. “How do we stay with them so they, or those making the decisions for them, can make the best informed decisions and have access to the services they need?” 

One of the team’s most important tasks? Preparation, noted Duke, which involves being out in the community, educating the aging population about advance care directives related to end-of-life decisions. 

“These are difficult conversations,” said Duke. “None of us wants to talk about directives, but we know we have to think about it.” 

Health care professionals should — early on — practice initiating these “difficult conversations,” said Patricia Wright, Ph.D., who teaches an end-of-life, seminar course at Scranton, which consists of mostly upperclassmen, who have already begun their clinicals. 

She believes that, though it doesn't always happen, it’s better to conduct the difficult conversations long before the end of life. 

“The students bring a lot to talk about; they’ve already experienced a lot,” she said. “We talk about how to support patients, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well.” 

Wright echoed Duke’s assertions that a team of healthcare professionals consisting of doctors, nurses, social workers, therapists and other senior- care professionals should be involved in the care of older patients. And, more important, the team should discuss options with the entire family unit. 

This, according to Duke, is when he relies on his Jesuit training in “being for and with others.” 

“Scranton imbues that in all of us,” he said. “Sometimes, an older person takes his or her time telling you something. Don’t rush it; you may miss it. In the field of aging and health care, there is this gift of being present … and the presence of God is there.” 

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