Aging World: Adapting to a Key Demographic Shift

As the world gets older, associations will have to take steps to respond to this demographic shift.

The world is getting grayer: The number of Americans 65 and older is expected to double by 2050. And for the next few years, baby boomers plan to stick around in their jobs, either because they want to or because economic necessity forces them to. Which is to say that aging isn’t just about age: It encompasses work, health, economics, and government, too.

Ellie Hollander, president and CEO of Meals on Wheels America, experiences that complex intersection of changes on a daily basis. It runs on a mix of private and public funding to address a senior hunger gap that threatens to keep widening. “We’re serving 2.4 million people, but we know that there are nearly 10 million seniors who are struggling with hunger,” she says. The organization is further challenged by uncertain federal funding and intense competition for philanthropic dollars.

Hollander’s proposed solution is to make the business case for companies to partner with the association. Last September, for instance, it announced a pilot program in collaboration with health insurance giant Aetna where volunteers delivering meals will help facilitate healthcare access for the seniors they serve. Meals on Wheels America benefits by becoming a more essential part of the healthcare infrastructure; Aetna gets a volunteer army that’s checking in on seniors before their health issues become serious—and expensive—saving the insurer on medication and hospital costs.

“We have an intervention that saves money, reduces healthcare costs, and improves people’s health and well-being,” Hollander says. “In addition to malnutrition, social isolation also contributes to people ending up in the emergency room and hospitals much more frequently than if they had access to nutritious meals and companionship.”

To do this, the association has reshuffled its org chart since Hollander’s arrival in 2013. It now has an executive vice president for healthcare integration and its own separate initiative, Meals on Wheels Health, focused on the issue. She says stressing the urgency of the issue with her board was a key factor: She scheduled three multiday sessions over nine months to address the rising numbers of older Americans and consider solutions.

“People said, ‘It’s too soon, you need to get your sea legs,” but the world in which we are living is changing so rapidly and the senior population is growing so quickly,” she says. “I want to make sure we’re relevant. And more than just relevant—I want us to thrive.”

Concerns about aging are relevant beyond an association’s members and customers. The issue also has an impact on association offices themselves, where boomer executives are nearing retirement and thinking about their own roles, as well as succession planning.

“There are millions of boomers who are moving from the left lane to the exit ramp,” says Tara Withington, CAE, vice president at AMC Executive Director Incorporated. “Many boomers won’t discuss their plans to retire or slow down due to the fear they will be marginalized or passed over for meaningful work.”

Exacerbating that anxiety is the fact that nonprofits are generally weak on succession planning: In one 2014 study, 38 percent of CEOs said their organization didn’t have a plan for the executive’s departure. Establishing a regular conversation about succession can put both the CEO and the board at ease, Withington says. So does a frank discussion about what role an executive nearing retirement can play.

“Boomers don’t want to just hang on until they can’t work anymore,” she says. “They want to make sure that they are mentoring and sharing their wisdom. And, quite honestly, I’ve heard from millennials that they’re not ready for the boomers to just walk out the door either. They rely on us for guidance and insight.”

From Associations Now, a publication of the American Society for Association Executives.

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