As the baby boomer generation continues to age, geriatric care managers and hospice providers have flooded the health care market in South Carolina to accommodate an ever-growing population of older patients.
Mary Peters, for example, is the president of Care for Life Charleston. She established the company in 1995 soon after she realized there was a need to help South Carolinians manage their latter years and approach the challenges of aging.
"It was what we needed here," she said.
In the past five years, annual deaths in South Carolina increased from roughly 42,000 to 47,500. A corresponding demand for providers who deal with end-of-life care has been made clear by an increasing number of people in hospice and receiving in-home services.
According to data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, billing to Medicare by hospice providers spiked by about $11.8 million in South Carolina between 2007 and 2015.
The Hospice and Palliative Care Foundation, which gives aid to those at the end of their life in South Carolina, has seen an increase in its requests for help, especially in the past three years.
Hospice enrollment has particularly increased in Horry County, where numbers have doubled since 2007.
In Horry County, about 21 percent of the population was older than 65 in 2015, compared with a national rate of about 15 percent. Carl Lindquist, spokesperson for Tidelands Health, which serves Horry County, said outpatient visits to providers in the Tidelands system have grown by 477 percent since 2001.
Just this month, the system launched a revamped palliative care program. Palliative care is geared toward supporting patients with chronic or incurable diagnoses.
“It really provides that support for them and for their family as they come to terms with a diagnosis,” said Monica Grey, associate vice president of transitional care.
Tidelands is not the only health system in the state to expand palliative care.
Dr. Patrick Cawley, CEO of Medical University Hospital, said he has made palliative and hospice care a priority.
“There is a tendency for patients to die in the hospital and go into a lot of different procedures,” he said.
MUSC recently began a palliative care fellowship program. Cawley said he expects to expand palliative care at the medical university further.
However, there is no fellowship at MUSC in geriatrics, the branch of medicine dedicated to the care of the elderly. Students completing a residency in internal medicine must enroll in such a fellowship to become a geriatrician. The American Geriatrics Society estimates there are about 7,000 specialists in the United States. But the country will need far more; the organization predicts 30,000 will be needed by 2030.
Margaret Kunes, owner of Aging Life Care Charleston, said she too has seen more demand for her company's services than she expected. Aging Life Care provides guidance to seniors on their health care, Kunes said.
"The reward in the work is getting to help make a difference in those years approaching the end of life, rather than sadness in the final years," she said.