Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging

Older Adults as Community Health Workers: Using their skills & experiences to strengthen the health care workforce

Written by Annalee Wilson, MPH candidate, Brown School and student in Contemporary Perspectives on Aging

As people live longer and healthier lives, our traditional ideas about retirement are evolving. According to researchers Cahill and Quinn at Boston College, retirement has become a gradual process for most Americans. A recent study from the Vanguard Research Initiative found that approximately half of older adults are interested in continuing to work after exiting a career job. Many older adults search for bridge jobs. Bridge employment involves transitioning from a career job to a different job with a new employer before fully retiring. The researchers at the Vanguard Research Initiative found that flexible work arrangements, including choosing the number of hours and setting the schedule, were important features of attractive bridge jobs.

Simultaneously, the United States is facing a drastic health care worker shortage. Mercer, a consulting firm advancing health and retirement, is predicting a shortage of 3.2 million health care workers by 2026. Much of this worker shortage will be in lower-wage positions, such as community health worker positions. Community health workers are liaisons between patients, families, and health and social service providers. They assist patients and families in accessing services and are trained in basic health interventions. Often, community health workers are trusted members of the community who have a high level of understanding about the needs in their community.

The United States has a growing number of older workers looking for bridge jobs before entering full retirement. These older workers have years of experience and valuable skills. With a health care worker shortage crisis looming, these experienced older workers could fill community health worker roles and reduce the shortage. As community health workers, older adults could strengthen health care coordination and expand access to care. Community health worker positions are often offered on a part-time flexible schedule, which fits the preferences of many older workers.

Some community health worker positions require only a high school degree and preferably one year of experience in health care, customer service, social work, or a similar field. Many older adults already meet these qualifications. For older adults who want formal community health worker training, education programs are widely available and often offered online. St. Louis Community College currently offers a hybrid training program that lasts approximately 20 weeks and requires 128 classroom hours and 60 service learning hours. Area Agencies on Aging should establish relationships with local health care and community-based organizations seeking to fill community health worker positions. Area Agencies on Aging can collaborate with organizations to make community health worker positions more accommodating to older adults’ preferences. They can recruit older adults for these positions, establishing a pipeline to employment.

The older adult population is growing. We have a huge pool of talented, experienced, and skilled older workers who are retired from their career positions but still wish to pursue alternative employment opportunities. We are also facing a shortage of health care workers. Area Agencies on Aging should support older adults in finding community health worker positions. Doing so will not only provide older workers with employment opportunities suitable to their needs, but will also improve health care access and community health.

This blog post author is a student in the course, Contemporary Perspectives on Aging, led by Nancy Morrow-Howell, PhD, the Bettie Bofinger Brown Distinguished Professor of Social Policy, at the Brown School and Director of the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging at the Institute for Public Health. The course examines current issues of aging societies, from individual, family and community perspectives and uses a multidisciplinary lens to consider the biological, social, and psychological aspects of longer lives.