by Ellen Brandt, Ph.D.

Demographics is Destiny! While other business sectors seem to struggle like 80-year-olds competing in an Olympic sprint, the sector which caters to 80-year-olds – senior services – is accelerating steadily and strongly, way ahead of the pack.

Consider the following:

By 2030, all Baby Boomers (now aged 46-63) will be over 65. The percentage of the US population aged 65 and over will stand at close to 20%, with those 75 and over comprising almost 10% of US citizens.

The chances of becoming disabled increases dramatically with age. For the population 80 years or older, the basic disability rate is a whopping 71%, with 56% described as being severely disabled.

People 65 and over made an astounding 230 million visits to physicians’ offices in 2005, the last recorded data point, plus an additional 16.5 million visits to hospital outpatient clinics and 17.2 million trips to hospital emergency rooms. Over 16% of US GDP now goes to healthcare.

I became part of the senior services sector a couple of years ago, when I established a business called Lifestories Limited to videotape the autobiographies of “ordinary” – actually extraordinary – elders, either living independently or in assisted-living, nursing home, and other healthcare-related venues.

I’ve since branched out with a service called Recollections, conducting periodic generational history activity groups for residents of nursing homes and assisted-living sites, and another called Commemorations, which, in conjunction with mortuaries, videotapes reminiscences of recently-deceased loved ones as part of the bereavement and healing process.

Despite the fact that my business is a bit out of the senior services mainstream, I feel the sector has welcomed me with open arms. Other fields may attract more young employees. But senior services is young in its thinking and its willingness to accept talent and creativity at face value.

That’s partly because there are actual shortages of employees – in some niches, quite serious – throughout the sector. The misconception is that such shortages are occurring only at the entry- or unskilled level. And indeed, basic home healthcare workers continue to be in short supply.

But serious shortages exist at the highest levels, too. There are simply not enough geriatricians, geriatric nurses, geriatric social workers, and academic gerontologists. Even elder law, an often quite lucrative specialty, continues to attract far fewer practitioners than trendy legal specialties like securities law and corporate law.

The senior services community includes all of the above professionals, as well as owners of homecare agencies, government and non-profit aging specialists, geriatric case managers, long-term care insurance and other financial products purveyors, pharmacists, bereavement and hospice experts, and providers of specialty equipment and services geared to the elderly.

What I have found most amazing about this sector, compared to most others, is how cooperatively apparent competitors behave with one another. Homecare agencies routinely refer cases they’re too busy to handle to peers, for instance. And there is extraordinary openness to cooperative joint ventures of every kind.

So Why Are We Still the Rodney Dangerfield of Sectors? Growth, labor shortages, cooperation, openness to innovation. But still, from some, senior services gets no respect!

I think it’s just a matter of time and the recognition of changing demographic realities.

Let me finish with a brief anecdote.

I’m an Ivy Leaguer, and all of the Ivies have been staging near-constant alumni programs dealing with this financial crisis. There’s a pervasive sense of disbelief that our over-dependence on financial services as The Place That Employs The Best and Brightest might finally have come to no good.

I’ve attended a few of these events in order to network, despite the fact that listening to laid-off investment bankers, Wall Street lawyers, and hedge fund managers whine and moan about how they may only be making a zillion dollars a year from now on, instead of the ten zillion they’ve become accustomed to, is slightly surreal.

At one such event, the organizers staged a panel discussion that included a Distinguished – especially in his own mind – Journalist, who continually talked through his nose. When the floor was opened to comments, I stood up and briefly summarized what I’ve said in this piece: That senior services was a vibrant, creative, growing field and that more Ivy job-hunters should consider it fertile ground for employment.

“No, No!” broke in the Distinguished Journalist. “Those jobs are uninteresting and too low-paying, simply beneath the notice of We Who Rule the World.” Or words to that effect.

“But back in the ’70s when we were in school,” I interjected, “they used to say the exact same thing about Computers and the poor, misguided nerds who were pioneers in that sector.”

Well, I just couldn’t convince the Distinguished Journalist. But after the event, everyone crowded around to give me their business cards.

About This Story: Recession? What Recession? was originally printed on March 30, 2009 in the Community Marketing Blog. Although my own circumstances have changed since its original printing – I am now more involved with media ventures than senior services – since I retain the legal rights to this story, I’ve decided to “bring it home” to EllenInteractive.

Readers who liked this story might also want to read “Summer Camp for Seniors” at: http://wp.me/pycK6-t

Also read about Ellen’s idea for a “University for Elders” at: http://wp.me/pycK6-v