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Building Our Army of Advocates

Katie Smith Sloan March 20, 2018
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LeadingAge turns to millennials to help advance solutions for financing long-term care.

“Some problems are not problems; they are facts.” Here are a few facts that we are facing today: our society is aging, people are living longer, and we are unprepared. The government is unprepared. Organizations are unprepared. Communities are unprepared. And families, most certainly, are unprepared.

And here is another fact: there are more millennials than there are baby boomers. So, while there is a lot of attention on the aging of the baby boomers, our lens should focus, from a societal point of view, on the millennials.

Yes, they are years away from receiving Social Security and Medicare. Yet, they are already witnessing their parents and grandparents aging and many of them are already caring for them. Did you know that there approximately 10 million millennial caregivers in the United States? Did you know that on average, they work 35 hours a week and then spend an additional 21 hours providing care for a friend or family member? Did you know that the average millennial caregiver’s annual income falls thousands of dollars short of the U.S. median salary?

One of the big failings in our current policies is a system for paying for services and supports as people age. It is a fact that 50% of older adults will need some kind of services and supports, 75% of whom will need them for 5 years or more. And the cost of this care is astronomical.

Today, these services are paid for by families, often out of meager savings accounts and Social Security checks. When money runs out, Medicaid becomes the only option.

This is not a “system” and it is not sustainable. It is a patchwork held together by family responsibility and a very strained public Medicaid program. We need a solution so the burden does not fall on yet another generation’s shoulders. The challenge is to build public awareness of the need and to identify political champions to hammer out and push through a solution.

We have been working on a solution for more than a decade, but one is not on our immediate horizon. While we will continue our work in the policy arena, we know we need to do more. Recognizing a great opportunity, LeadingAge is turning to millennials for help. They represent a new generation of advocates who can fight for improved policies that will make this country a better place to grow old.

When the time comes to push a policy through Congress, we will need an army of supporters on the ground so our voices are heard loud and clear on the issues. However, research shows us that many people “including millennials” do not know nearly enough about who pays for long-term care, who might need it, and what the cost will be.

LeadingAge has embarked on a public awareness campaign targeting the millennial generation for a couple of reasons: they are more civically-minded and more likely to share their opinions on social media than other generations. If we can educate this targeted audience about the myriad issues around long-term services and supports, we will have an already-established group ready to take action when the time is right.

We kicked off campaign preparation by conducting a focus group with 11 millennials from the Washington, DC area. Some of what we learned surprised us; some of it didn’t. Here are a few takeaways from the group’s discussion:

  • Savings/spending priorities are focused on current needs (e.g., buying a house or car, paying off student loans, paying rent/mortgage).
  • They assume they’ll have enough money to retire, but don’t give it much thought.
  • One third of participants had already had experience with caregiving, but didn’t consider themselves “caregivers” most considered that a term to use for a paid caregiver.
  • No one in the group understood who pays for long-term services and supports.
  • 10 out of 11 had heard of long-term care, but only about half understood what it really meant.
  • Words they used when learning about having to cover care themselves or for their families included “daunting” and “overwhelming.”
  • Participants eagerly wanted to learn more and believed that their peers would also benefit from education around the issue.

We tested 6 potential messages with the group and themes that resounded included:

  • Plan early.
  • Be heard.
  • Be your own advocate.
  • More than half of us will need care that isn’t always available.

Moving forward, we will continue to test concepts and messages with more millennials as well as secondary and tertiary target audiences.

We are excited about taking on this challenge. We realize that it is daunting and possibly overwhelming, but we have a moral obligation to continue to do all we can to advance a solution “or many” that will ensure that families don’t bankrupt themselves in the name of caring for one another.

As the trusted voice for aging, LeadingAge must do all it can to ensure that we all have an opportunity to live our lives “at every state” with dignity and respect.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Since this essay was published, LeadingAge launched the Carry the Conversation Campaign.


Katie Smith Sloan

Katie is the president and CEO of LeadingAge, an organization committed to helping nonprofit aging services providers deliver high-quality care to older adults across the country.

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