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Is the Central Coast ready for an aging population?

Is the Central Coast ready for an aging population?

Picture of Bethany Thornton
(Photo via Beth Thornton/iStock)
(Photo via Beth Thornton/iStock)

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, by 2030 one in five Californians will be over the age of 65. While many people in their 60s and 70s are still at work and in good health, this raises questions about the changing needs for health care and health care workers in the years to come. As the baby boomer generation exits the workforce, and ages, will there be adequate resources and staffing to fill the needs of the community? 

The imbalance of a growing, aging population and a shrinking health care workforce could lead to diminished health care services on the Central Coast. Local health care preparedness for an aging population is the focus of my 2021 Data Fellowship project.

The Central Coast, which includes Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, is expected to face nursing shortages in the coming years. In a 2018 report, UCSF Healthforce Center predicted that RN shortages would develop in the Central Coast region by 2035. Shortages are expected elsewhere, as well. “However, the Central Valley and Central Coast will remain far below the national 25th percentile, and the RN-per-100,000 ratio is projected to decrease in the Central Coast region between 2018 and 2035,” according to Joanne Spetz, associate director of research at the Healthforce Center. It’s important to note that this research was published pre-pandemic and does not account for the current state of burnout and early retirement being reported in the news. It is possible that shortages may occur earlier than initially projected. 

The Central Coast region is known for its beautiful beaches, attracting retirees who seek a moderate climate with lots of amenities, but it is also known for high housing costs that limit opportunities for lower-wage earners. My reporting will examine the wages and cost of living expenses for health care workers on the Central Coast compared to those of other areas in the state. 

In the 2019 report, “Meeting the Demand for Health,” the California Future Health Workforce Commission identified education, diversity, and a living wage as strategies to overcome shortfalls in the health care workforce and meet the demands of the state’s increasingly diverse and aging population

“As a generation of baby boomers retires — including a large percentage of the health workforce — and as living costs rise and the state’s production of health workers continues to lag growing demands, millions more Californians will find it difficult to access quality, affordable care,” the report stated. “This looming crisis will be most acute in primary care, behavioral health, and among workers who care for older adults.”

On the Central Coast, UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, enroll more than 20,000 students each and offer excellent science and technology programs, but neither campus has a medical or nursing school that feeds into the local community. Multiple community colleges along the coast do, however, offer nursing programs and medical training opportunities. Data on enrollment, graduation rates and job placements can generate a picture of local workforce potential as well as recruitment and scholarship needs.  

First responders will also be affected by an aging population. Some local agencies on the Central Coast have initiated trainings to better prepare personnel for encounters with this demographic. I want to look at trends for text alerts, 911 calls and other age-related requests for emergency services, as well as educational resources for the community-at-large.   

This is of particular importance if projections by the Alzheimer’s Association are correct.  The group’s 2020 report suggests a significant increase in people with dementia-related diseases and a simultaneous shortage of geriatric health care professionals as the baby boom generation ages.

All of these projections warrant further investigation specific to the Central Coast community. Drawing on personal interviews and data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, California Labor Market Information Division, County Public Health Departments, and other local agencies, I will assess various aspects of the health care workforce on the Central Coast and its readiness for an aging population. The series will air on KCBX Central Coast Public Radio. 

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