A scarcity of paid caregivers means that, in the future, older people may have to band together to help each other.
Older Americans are already pitching in to care for their more frail or even older counterparts as either paid or volunteer workers. That's because finding younger people to work as caregivers is becoming more difficult.
Demand for home health aides during the next decade is expected to increase by more than 50%, according to the International Longevity Center-USA, a nonprofit research policy organization based in New York City.
Even now, about 20% of adults needing assistance are unable to find either paid or voluntary help, according to a 2006 report from the center.
"There is a real crisis in finding enough people to care for seniors," says Loren Shook, chief executive of Silverado Senior Living, a San Juan Capistrano-based company that specializes in serving older people with memory impairments. The company provides hospice and home care and operates assisted living centers.
But a large group of healthy, older adults who are retired from their jobs might fill the bill.
At Silverado, 12% of the paid staff are people over age 55, says Shook. Some work full time, others part time. Many have flexible schedules that allow for extended time off if, for example, they want to travel or have health needs of their own.
"The labor pool that exists within the senior population is a phenomenal untapped resource," he says. "We're in a world where people age 65 today are generally in good health. They have a lot of energy. These are people who want to make a difference in others' lives."
Seniors who have a caregiver have a five times better chance of remaining in their homes, says Peter Notarstefano of the American Assn. of Homes and Services for the Aging.
Family members aren't always available, but a network of similarly aged friends and neighbors might bridge the gap.
The Naturally Occurring Retirement Community supportive services program in Park La Brea relies on dozens of seniors. Volunteers answer the phone, visit people who are shut in and sit on councils that direct the program's goals and activities, says Sally Miller, a senior living in Park La Brea who volunteers with the program.
"You give, but you receive so much back," she says.