Saturday, August 11, 2007

Aged care trends in Australia

According to projections made by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, half of the population of Australia will be 50 years old or more by the year 2051. In that time the population of Australia is expected to increase to between 25 and 33 million people, an increase of between 5 million and 13 million on current day population figures. Consider the projected population growth in these terms. It has taken almost 250 years for the population of Australia to reach 20 million yet over the next 40 years the population will grown by a possible 5-13 million. This is somewhere between a 25% and 65% growth in population in less than 20% of the time it took to reach the current figures.

The implications of this growth are staggering. The impact upon Australia's infrastructure will be enormous, especially when the projections are that 66% of the population will live in a capital city, with Sydney and Melbourne predicted to be the most populated cities. It is notable that Queensland is predicted to replace Victoria as Australia's second largest State during that time. Perhaps reflecting a move by both the young and the elderly to a warmer climate.

What are the implications for the health sector and for the aged care sector in particular with this growth in percentage of elderly? For a start elderly people require either residential services or they require services delivered to their homes. Currently around 33% of Australia's population is aged over 50 years. Over the next forty years this percentage will double. The need for residential services and community services will grow faster than in the past. Effectively the development of appropriate services will need to be put into place at a much faster rate. Potential developers of residential services will need to be looking a decade or two into the future and identifying now the need and available land for such services.

Government investment, for aged care, at all three levels of government will likely need to increase substantially. The increase in number of aged will create difficulties for Government when prioritising health funding. Governments will need to start identifying ways and means to encourage those that are not yet elderly to commence saving for the services they will require later in life. The family inheritance will go the way of the dodo for the average family as that capital base will be needed to pay for care. Those family members caring for an elderly parent in their own home should be eligible for carer funding support. It is much less expensive that having to provide Government funded residential or community support!

Technology will play an increasingly important role in aged care in the future. The generation of people requiring aged care services over the next forty years are computer literate, they are familiar will locating and identifying information related to their own health concerns and during that time it is likely systems will be developed that enable medical practitioners and patients to interact online in numerous different ways. Technology will also enable greater involvement in aged care by the extended family. Video conferencing technology via the internet will enable extended family members to maintain a watch on elderly parents from remote locations. Such technology will also enable the aged living in the community to communicate with their health providers and professionals. The ability to link the home refrigerator to the internet would be a boon for many elderly unable to undertake their own shopping. The baby boomers moving into elderly status will be familiar with and able to use online shopping, banking, bill payments, email, chat and so on. Governments need to invest funding into technology that will help the aged live more fulfilling lives at home and in the community rather than investing in support systems in the hospital.

Technology alone may drive many of the changes to how we deliver aged care services. Should the trend be towards more community living, aided by technology, then the role of those operating residential facilities will change dramatically; they will likely need to change from investing in infrastructure to investing in the delivery of services to a variety of locations. Those that already delivery community services will have a distinct advantage.

The increasing number of elderly people and the transient nature of young people, especially those within the workplace, means a premuim will be placed on those with experience and knowledge. Increasingly employers will understand the value of hiring and retaining mature workers, many of them will continue to work into their seventies. This group of people are in the workplace at present. They are learning to adapt to changing circumstances and they will continue to improve in their efforts to reinvent themselves. The emerging knowledge economy within Australia suggests also that many elderly will continue to work longer but may choose to work from home or from other remote locations. We will be less inclined to assume elderly means enforced retirement. It is feasible an increasing number of elderly will be partly retired while continuing to work from either home, or interestingly enough, from so-called retirement villages!

Interestingly the ABS forecasts predict the number of elderly aged 85 plus will increased during this period from around current levels of 350,000 to somewhere between 1.6 million and 2.7 million, to make up around 7% of Australia's population. These people will be those likely to require medical assistance, yet at the same time they will be fitter and healthier than their counterparts in 2007. The services they will require will change also. As with the elderly today they will continue to require meals to be provided - the growth in meals being delivered into the community will spiral. Those that provide meals into the community will need to provide 506X that currently being supplied. This will require improved facilities, greater nutritional advice and an increasing number of volunteer drivers. The tastes of the future elderly will be different, more cosmopolitan, they will demand variety and diversity of meals in line with their previous experiences as global travelers.

Kathryn Roberts, CEO of United States-based Ecumen when conducting research into future aged care needs in Minnasota wrote that the future represents an opportunity for Governments and providers to listen and to act and importantly, to work together to shape solutions that help the aged live where they want and how they want.

The implications for the retail sector, and its associated industries, such as advertising are enormous, and already these sectors are beginning to understand that their environment will be changing constantly over the next 40 years. There will still be a need for branded items, just less of a need, as the population ages. Older consumers use a different criteria when making purchasing decisions. In the past the aged have been patronised by almost every sector of the community - continue with those practices in the future at your own peril.

The acute care hospital sector will always be needed to provide medical assistance to the elderly, it is a fact of life that the elderly are more susceptible to illness than those much younger. Future governments need to streamline the funding of health so as to make the transition from aged care to acute care and back again seamless for the patient. This is difficult to achieve when different funding models apply to acute and the aged care sector ensuring each sector jealously guards its funding allocation by trying to transfer the patient and the cost to the other.

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