America’s Care Providers
My mother died two weeks ago at age 90. She had been diagnosed with Dementia 10 years ago. Her slide into darkness was heartbreaking. Even at the end, part of her remembered who she was; an alpha female with a long history of public service and 50 years of marriage to a successful diplomat and Cold War warrior. When my father, her husband, died of leukemia in 1999, he had been in full command of his faculties. We suspected he planned his death as carefully as he negotiated treaties. It was so different from witnessing my mother over the last months clinging to life in the face of discomfort and confusion. Aging doesn’t always look like the brochures for retirement homes or annuities.
My mother had felt abandoned by her husband’s death. I gather this is an emotion that is not uncommon in a close marriage. She moved from the family compound to a new condo, and the decline started. She totaled her car and was found to have both an expired license and lapsed car registration. The local Baptist minister was driving the car she hit, and thanks to small town ecumenicalism, she was forgiven. But we took away her car keys. The next nine years were difficult. In our family, like so many American families, the burden of elder care fell on my sister. I was just the supporting cast. My sister often described herself as being inside a care provider sandwich – with our mother and her own teenagers as the slices of bread.
Almost every Baby Boomer I know is struggling with aging parents. Nothing has prepared us for the challenges. How do you buy adult diapers, much less talk mom or dad into using them? How do I take control of mom’s finances? She doesn’t want to leave home, but she forgets to write the mortgage/rent check. She is vulnerable to telemarketers and direct mail solicitations. How do we take the checkbook and credit cards away? She can’t use a normal cell phone, is there a simpler version? If so, how would I teach her to use it? I need to buy her new clothes, but the assisted living facility wants nametags sewn in. Do companies do that? Can I rent a hospital bed? Is there something other than the nursing home generic bedpan? How do I get her to bathe more often? She likes stuffed animals again, is there a hypoallergenic line for adults? The list is endless and all of the solutions are connected in one way or another to retail. How come with all the signals of rising healthcare costs, the news stories on demographic trends, even the explosive growth of the AARP, our merchant community is so far behind the need, much less the opportunity?
Our marketing and advertising communities are focused on youth. We seem to want brands to stay young rather than age with their constituency. In my teens, jeans and Levi’s were interchangeable words. Yet even in my dotage that brand and others have abandoned my generation. I have to remind our clients that the overwhelming majority of wealth in North America is in the hands of people who are age 55 and over. They were the lucky ones who climbed the housing wall early, and who know how to save.
Traditional branding and advertising is often focused on how the acquisition of product changes our image. Most of us realize at some point in adulthood that few purchases are transformational. At some point all of us need glasses. Yet our first trip to the optician is always painful. I never knew that the frames, lens, and the various coatings available were all separate costs – and that a basic set of stylish glasses cost a couple of hundred dollars. Go to the audiologist at your local Sears and discover that you can get a very good used car for the same price as a top-of-the-line set of nearly invisible hearing aids. It is one of the most common size-to-price educations we can get in our modern digital world. For a generation raised on discos and heavy metal, that purchase is inevitable.
Seize the Opportunities
For all the differences between wants and needs in a consumer society, we can circle back to life and persona of the care provider. Here are some basic opportunities.
- The modern branch bank needs to be more of a school rather than a transactional node. Money and personal finance is inherently complex and we get our knowledge of how it works ad hoc. Elder care classes might be complemented with how to use a credit card and basic tax preparation tips. So many financial products are based on life stage events – birth, maturity, marriage, children, school and so forth.
- The Drug and Mass stores need a care provider’s section. It’s fine to sell Depends to the mature person who recognizes the need, but so much of the market is buying the product for someone else, not unlike the other kind of diapers. Dry shampoos, adult bibs, a kiosk where you can rent hospital beds, supplies, and a listing of all the services that one’s care provider might need are all low-hanging fruit. The same section might also feature single-serving food and beverages. Seniors will still drink Coke, just not by the liter.
- Home Centers could feature all the elements that go into preparing a home or apartment for the disabled. It does not have to be generic or pedestrian. There is segment of Americans that can afford to be stylish. A little focus from the shelter magazines—and perhaps Marc Jacobs-designed hospital gowns—might not hurt either.
Ask a care provider what her frustrations are and they start with need for information. There are consultants out there offering their services to help find the right assisted living facility or nursing home, or explaining how to negotiate your way through Medicare and Medicaid. But the small stuff is what chews up the care provider’s time, his or her most precious commodity.
Our declines are part of life. With them come day-to-day needs. While death need not be an industry, facilitating compassion is an honorable calling. Seeing how hard my sister worked to make our mother’s life as comfortable as it could be, it forced me to face a tough question. As a childless man, who is going to look after me? I hope Walgreens and Walmart are paying attention.