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Alzheimer’s Advocate Nihal Satyadev Tells Us Why It Takes a Village to Care for Our Elderly

It has long been said that it takes a village to raise a child but not much has been said on what exactly it takes to care for our elders.

Perhaps, this is because our elders, unlike children who can be seen at our parks, schools, recreation centers, and faith-based institutions, are segmented away from mainstream society, confined within their own homes or specialized living communities. Perhaps, its because we choose to associate children with the future and elders with the past. Or perhaps, we are simply prey to the cuteness of a toddler cuddling a puppy on our social media feeds. Regardless of intent, it seems the passion we pour into making sure our children get access to a good education does not parallel, at a societal level, the efforts we take to ensure our elders, many with chronic disease, memory impairments, and diminishing mobility, are able to maintain purposeful and healthy lives for as long as possible.

The lack of dedication to this effort has led to a long-term care system that is as expensive as it is flawed. The average annual cost of both assisted living facilities and nursing homes is higher than our country’s median annual income. The program our country created specifically to support the needs of seniors, Medicare, shockingly, covers long-term care only for a short period. Even California, which has one of the largest and most robust state-funded, in-home care program in the country, is only able to support one-eighth of the state’s unpaid family caregivers. As we soon approach the year 2035, when our 65+ population is anticipated to supersede our under 18 population for the first time in our country’s history, we must recognize that our current approach to care will bankrupt Medicare and Medicaid, and as a result, our country. We must progress beyond this antiquated model of care and leverage what we have already invested so much in – our children.

Alas, when a system seems without hope for transformative innovation, comes a new generation. We are a generation that recognizes inequities in our society and work towards rapidly addressing them. We aren’t afraid to call B.S. on the gun lobby, we are transforming solutions for climate change, and we will be the ones to address the flaws in our long-term care system.

When young individuals volunteer to provide care for older adults, especially for those who are still in their homes, there begins a transformative change. These adults, even those with dementia, begin to recognize their role in mentoring and shaping the minds of tomorrow. Our youth start to value the wisdom that is beholding in our elders and begin to visualize careers that service this population. Family caregivers, many who develop depression due to a lack of access to respite care, are finally provided much-needed break. As the burden on a family caregiver is reduced, so too, extends the time in which their loved one can stay at home, without being moved to a living facility. This “aging-in-place,” even by a few months, at scale, presents the opportunity to save our healthcare system billions — yes, with a b.

At first read, these claims may seem to good to be true, and that’s because they aren’t true — yet. We have neither created a standardized and culturally relevant training for a new wave of caregivers nor have we scaled a model that can reach the millions of seniors who could benefit from this intergenerational experience. However, my experiences in the past few years, working with thousands of students across the country has yielded a position, not of optimism, but of realism. There is more work to be done, but a transformative future is within sight.

So before you call my generation a bunch of lazy, entitled, avocado toast lovers (okay, maybe that last part is true), I implore you to recognize our tremendous passion for social justice, innovation, and volunteerism. And the next time you come across someone in their teens or their twenties, take a moment to have a conversation with them about how our shifting demographics put healthcare affordability at risk, share with them the struggles our elders face in traversing our current long-term care system, and inform them of the dramatic change they can make by providing voluntary care.

While it very well may take a village to raise a child, it will take a generation to care for our elders. My generation.

Nihal Satyadev is a social entrepreneur, biomedical researcher, and a leading millennial Alzheimer’s advocate. In 2015, Nihal recognized that Alzheimer’s disease will bankrupt medicaid and medicare within two decades. Noticing a lack of youth advocacy on this issue, he founded The Youth Movement Against Alzheimer’s.

This essay was featured in the Nov. 18th edition of The Sunday Paper, Maria Shriver’s free weekly newsletter for people with passion and purpose. To get inspiring and informative content like this piece delivered straight to your inbox each Sunday morning, click here to subscribe.