Addressing the Health Needs of Older Workers: As the Workforce Ages, EAPs Will Begin to Confront Physical and Mental Health Issues Different from Those of Younger Workers

By DiGilio, Deborah | The Journal of Employee Assistance, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Addressing the Health Needs of Older Workers: As the Workforce Ages, EAPs Will Begin to Confront Physical and Mental Health Issues Different from Those of Younger Workers


DiGilio, Deborah, The Journal of Employee Assistance


In the United States and in most developed countries across the globe, the population is aging. People 65 years of age and older are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, and 78 million "baby boomers" (more than one of every four Americans) are right behind them. In 2006, nearly 8,000 boomers turned 60 each day (U.S. Census Bureau 2006).

Although senior adults have old age in common, they are becoming increasingly diverse with respect to ethnicity, gender, country of origin, health status, sexual orientation, educational background, financial resources, and family structure. They are also changing the composition of the workforce. It is projected that by 2012, workers aged 55 and older will comprise 19.1 percent of the labor force, up from 14.3 percent in 2002. This is a reversal of the pattern of decline in the share of workers aged 55 and older in the workforce that persisted through the 1980s (Toossi 2004).

Moreover, many boomers expect to continue working after they reach retirement age. A survey conducted by the investment firm Merrill Lynch showed that nearly 80 percent of boomers intend to keep working beyond age 65. About one-quarter are expecting to work because they need the money, but about half will continue to work to avoid boredom, to give back to the community, and to finance leisure pursuits (Merrill Lynch 2005).

HEALTH CARE CONCERNS

One issue on the mind of many aging workers--an issue that may complicate future work plans--is health care. The Merrill Lynch survey found that the unpredictable cost of illness and health care is the boomers' biggest fear. In fact, three times as many boomers were worried about a major illness (48 percent), their ability to pay for health care (53 percent), and ending up in a nursing home (48 percent) than about dying (17 percent).

These concerns are not without merit. The per capita health care expenditures of baby boomers are more than twice those of younger adults (Commonwealth Fund 2006). In 2004, people aged 45 to 54 spent an average of $2,695 on health care, while those 55 to 64 spent an average of $3,262 (U.S. Census Bureau 2006).

But the boomers are interested in health issues for more than just financial reasons. When your husband has a heart attack, your brother suffers from depression, your mother has dementia, and you wake up in pain from your arthritic knees, health care becomes a deeply personal matter.

These are not abstract concerns--chronic diseases increase dramatically as we age. Among working adults ages 16 to 64, 26 percent report orthopedic problems, 23 percent have high cholesterol, 22 percent have high blood pressure, 11 percent have been diagnosed with depression, and 6 percent have diabetes (Healthways 2008). More than half of working adults have one to three chronic conditions, and 14 percent have four or more health conditions (Healthways 2008). Joint diseases (including arthritis), asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and mood disorders are reported to be the top conditions responsible for annual work-loss days in the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (Wang 2003).

The risk factors for chronic disease are well known, yet reducing their prevalence is a goal that continues to elude us. Smoking, excess weight, physical inactivity, and substance abuse all increase the risk of disease and disability The number of obese Americans aged 55-64 has jumped 31 percent during the last two decades alone. Meanwhile, the number of adults 50 and over with substance abuse problems is predicted to grow to 4.4 million in 2020, up from 1.7 million in 2000, as the baby boomers carry their substance abuse issues into old age (SAMHSA 2003).

IMPORTANCE OF MENTAL HEALTH

Although most employers and workers are knowledgeable about the risk factors for chronic disease and disability, they are less familiar with the impact of mental health disorders on physical health. …

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