Life is sweet at home

Caregiver Shortage Looms as Boomers Age


Marla Beck, Owner, Andelcare Home Care, Serving Seattle and Bellevue Washington

Marla Beck, Owner, Andelcare Home Care, Serving Seattle and Bellevue Washington

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From his office in Olympia, Dan Murphy is watching Washington age.

As director of strategic planning in Washington’s Aging and Disability Services Administration, Murphy has a close eye on the state’s rapidly aging population of baby boomers. In three years, those boomers will start reaching 65 at a rate of 40,000 or more a year, quickly swelling the ranks of 65-plus by nearly a million residents.

Washington appears unprepared to handle the coming flood, according to aging and retirement experts. And that may present business opportunities for those prepared for what’s coming.

These tens of thousands of boomers, born in the two fruitful decades following World War II, will reach old age and likely have a challenging time finding someone to take them to their doctor’s appointments — or even to treat them once they get there.

“I think people should be quite concerned,” said Murphy. “The sheer demographics are overwhelming.”

Providers from physical therapists to radiologists to primary care doctors will be in short supply, said Murphy.

“The demand for health care services will grow,” he said, “and challenge all the folks in those industries.”

The shortage of services and caregivers will open up a wide variety of future opportunities in the health care field. But starting those businesses, or expanding current companies, could be made tougher by a shortage of labor. Marla Beck, who owns senior caregiving service Andelcare in Bellevue, is fully aware of the coming shortage for her services and thinks she’ll have a hard time meeting that demand.

“I know I’ll have a lot of customers, but I don’t know if I can come up with enough good caregivers,” said Beck, whose business brings in about $1 million in revenue a year.

Beck started Andelcare seven years ago and has expanded to employ 70 full- and part-time caregivers who make between $11 and $15 an hour. Already, she’s having trouble keeping her roster full.

“We are constantly interviewing every week,” she said. Despite the recession, positions are hard to fill because finding the right people who are qualified is a challenge, Beck said.

The growth of Washington’s baby boomer population drives what’s also likely to be a statewide shortage of crucial health services — a dearth that’s only getting worse as a result of the state’s current economic crisis.

Even as the state readies itself for the ramping up of boomers’ care needs, Murphy said, it’s cutting health care services in the short term in the wake of a $9 billion budget shortfall.

The Aging and Disability Administration, for example, just had to cut the number of hours used by each home-care client by an average of about 4 percent. That’s a half-day of in-home service for a typical senior each month. The agency also just eliminated much of its adult day health service, a program that supplemented the care seniors were receiving in adult living facilities.

“We’re cutting when we probably should be building,” Murphy said.

To be sure, Washington is regarded as one of several states with the best long-term care options for seniors, particularly because of its trend toward in-home care, said Charley Reed, a Washington state-based board member for AARP, the country’s largest membership group for retirees and seniors.

“In most states,” he said, “the only real long-term care option is a nursing home.”

But that’s also why the coming shortage of services will be particularly poignant for seniors who want to stay in their homes.

The caseload for in-home care provided by the state is expected to increase by 14 percent to 35,425 in the next two years, according to the Washington State Caseload Forecast Council. All areas of long-term care are expected to see a caseload increase of about 8 percent in the next two years.

In the longer term, the need will be even greater as more than 50,000 baby boomers are added to the state’s 65-plus population each year starting in 2020, according to a recent report by Washington’s Office of Financial Management. By comparison, baby boomers are currently reaching retirement age at the rate of 20,000 a year.

About two decades from now, the over-65 crowd will reach about 1.7 million, about one-fifth of the state’s population.

“We’re going to have thousands of more people in need and not that much healthier,” said Murphy.

Assisted living facilities also will be in short supply, although the demand has recently flattened for their services because of the state’s move toward in-home care.

Still, Bill Pettit, the president of Merrill Gardens, one of the largest senior care chains in the Puget Sound region, is expecting a shortage of units in the wake of the economic downturn.

None are under construction currently, largely because it’s hard to find construction financing. That means in two to three years — the typical buildout time for senior care facilities — there won’t be enough units to serve all the seniors who need them.

Pettit said his 2,500 units across 22 communities in Washington are 94 percent occupied. They would be even more full if the real estate market hadn’t tanked, causing some seniors to stay in their homes rather than sell them and lose money.

But, “many of the seniors that are deferring their decisions today,” Pettit said, “are going to be faced with a market with very few options available to them in the next 18 to 24 months.”

Merrill Gardens recently opened two new facilities — one in Kirkland, the other in Seattle — despite the economic downturn. It’s also continuing to expand in other states, including Arizona, Nevada and California.

The company’s revenues in Washington are about $39.9 million a year.

“This puts us in a pretty good position in the market for the next few years,”