Why Are the Elderly Forgotten When It Comes to Corporate Responsibility?

Assisted living is a big business, but many seniors hardly benefit.

Every so often, we see a government report or television expos about the tragedy of elder care and the plight of many senior citizens in the U.S. Such news will come with brief tut-tutting, then will be quickly forgotten thanks to our 24/7 news and social media cycle. But we continue to ignore the stubborn facts about our nation’s evolving demographics.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Medicare Act into law in 1965, only one in 11 Americans were over the age of 65. The population of Americans 65 and older will double its estimated number of 84 million by 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and by 2060, senior citizens will comprise 20 percent of the country’s population.

Despite this trend, we as a country are still youth-obsessed. Rather than focus on the wisdom and perspective that our older population offers, most of us pour our energy into fighting age rather than accepting it. When many of the supposed “cutting edge” media companies discuss getting older, it is usually about tactics to fight aging — instead of welcoming it as part of the cycle of life.

This obsession with youth is ingrained throughout all of our institutions, especially in our business community and NGOs. Companies and nonprofits are stepping over each other to show what they are doing to help kids and students as they extol the virtues of the millennial generation.

And indeed, millennials will remind us about everything they have endured. Of course, every generation has its pain: millennials will point out how they lived through two wars the U.S. instigated overseas, the fiscal crises dating back to 2008, and the risks coming from climate change.

But let me remind you of what the eldest generation today has endured: The oldest ones grew up during the Great Depression and suffered through the privations and loss of life during World War II, soon to be followed by the violence of the Korean War; they faced the prospect of nuclear war and communism, the latter of which inspired many to flee to the U.S.; and then they lived through the 1960s, arguably the most turbulent time in recent history.

Our younger senior citizens fought, or were affected by, the war in Vietnam. They then endured the inflationary days of the 1970s and the deindustrialization and decline of trade unions during the 1980s, when a middle-class life paid for by a blue-collar job ceased to be possible. Those who were women often were relegated to jobs far beneath their talents. Many who were not white remember a time when they could not vote or own property in certain areas of town. Elders who were gay generally lived a life in the closet, only to see their communities ravaged and friends disappear during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

But at a time when thought leaders in the sustainability and corporate responsibility space love to talk about “inclusion” and “diversity,” those words apparently do not apply to those whose first electronic device was a black-and-white television. And our senior citizens are largely excluded from these conversations — in part because many are not on the social media channels, but also because many are sequestered in terrible facilities where, if we do not confront the growing problems of elder care as a society, many of us will live out our final days, too.

The movement toward creating a society that, at a minimum, includes our senior citizens and at most celebrates what they have to offer must include two fronts. First, we must inspire all of our institutions to take responsibility in looking out for our elder population — not just our youth. Second, we have to start holding the companies that have been entrusted with our elder family members — and are making billions of dollars off taxpayers in the process — more accountable.

Leon Kaye with his late aunt, Helen Kaye.

The exclusion of our senior citizens from our daily life hit me even more over the past few months as I watched my aunt’s health decline, from hospitalization to a rehab center to a memory care facility, only back to hospitalization and soon hospice. Unlike many elders, my aunt was fortunate: My uncle had the means to have her cared for by one of the best assisted living facilities here in Fresno, California.

She also had a loving family and network of friends who visited her frequently, and in fact, her days were full as many of us visited her almost daily. Unfortunately, during her stay in memory care, no matter what time of day, my aunt’s family and friends were often the only visitors present. The staff where my aunt stayed was dedicated and treated my aunt and her peers with the upmost respect and dignity, but a five-star staff does not replace the presence of loved ones.

And so when the business community talks about community and the future, it is also important to remember those who, in general, we are too quick to dismiss as part of the past. While everyone is chasing millennials because they are perceived to be the most influential demographic, the size of our senior citizen population is one that is too large to ignore for both economic and moral reasons.

Yes, businesses should not be dissuaded from working with youth, and such programs fill a wide gap. But while corporate volunteering programs are a great way for engaging youth, our elders deserve attention, too. Whether it’s delivering meals, playing games, improving health or, quite frankly, just being there and listening to one’s stories from long ago — or hearing out ideas for what needs to happen today — it is time for companies, and society at large, to step up and expand what is too narrow of a definition of diversity.

Although we should encourage all organizations to consider senior citizens as part of the community, we also need to hold companies that are making billions of dollars from senior care accountable. While the health care industry prefers the monikers of “rehab centers” or “skilled nursing” facilities, just walking into many of these places makes one realize that they are often not anything resembling such descriptions.

Take the example of Genesis Healthcare, a Pennsylvania-based company that last year generated $4.75 billion in revenues. Like many of its peer companies, Genesis has been built on the funds — as in, Medicare disbursements — that it extracts from taxpayers. Its CEO, George V. Hager, Jr., earned compensation of almost $900,000 from what I’d call “Medicare mills” at best that the company operates across the country. Genesis’s board of directors allowed Hager to pocket his salary on the backs of the elderly (and physically disabled) who have stayed, or now live, at the company’s elder care facilities across the country.

Mercifully, my aunt, who spent three weeks at one of Genesis’s rehab centers in Clovis, California, was not subjected to what often becomes a life sentence at one of these decrepit facilities. Food not fit for human consumption; an untrained and disengaged staff who at best was disrespectful and at worst would yell at patients; decayed interiors made even worse by the lack of cleanliness; and doctors who prefer to over-medicate instead of delivering real solutions for health problems are among the daily indignities elder Americans have to suffer on a daily basis during the sunset of their lives. And again, many of these facilities lack visitors — and of course do not encourage any kind of programs to engage the community, because if they did, they would have to be held accountable for the conditions in which their patients live.

And while these corporations present a lofty impression of the services they offer, they give nothing back to the community despite the billions in taxpayer dollars from which their executives benefit. And in fairness, it is not just the elderly who suffer: Many of the nursing assistants who have to do the most difficult work make little more than minimum wage. Of course, a caring environment makes the difference: The staff at my aunt’s memory care facility were incredibly compassionate, as were the workers at the local hospice center. As in any sector, a healthy work environment and effective management make all the difference. But in the case of elder care, a discouraged workforce can result in suffering for one of the most vulnerable populations in our society. So, it is no wonder these companies offer nothing when it comes to corporate responsibility: they would then become exposed for the horrific care to which far too many senior citizens are subjected.

At a time when companies are trying to find innovative ways to engage the community and bolster stakeholder engagement, if they truly want to be innovative, they can find ways to enhance the lives of our older citizens, and encourage their employees to devote their time and resources to our elders. After all, they have lived through so much, and in my view, deserve much more from society than how society currently treats them.

Image credits: Leon Kaye