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If state and local governments are going to meet the needs of the nation’s rapidly aging population, they must start preparing now.
The Census Bureau counted 40.3 million Americans age 65 and older in 2010 – about 13 percent of the total population. By 2050, this demographic group will more than double in size, comprising an estimated 20 percent of the country.
A panel discussion examined the issue and explored potential pathways for governments Wednesday at the Governing Outlook in the States and Localities conference in Washington, D.C.
Nancy LeaMond, AARP's executive vice president, emphasized that the new crop of retirees is unlike previous generations. More people are putting off retiring, working much later in their lives as a result of insufficient retirement savings or economic uncertainty.
Retirees often moved to Florida or Texas in the past, but they’re now maintaining ties with where they’ve resided. LeaMond cited a survey finding 80 to 85 percent of seniors expect to remain in their communities.
For housing, LeaMond said localities should not limit their focus to developing traditional senior centers. She said whatever solution localities pursue, though, should be community based. Many areas have also taken steps to improve accessibility for seniors by working with nonprofits, businesses and other groups representing other interests.
LeaMond cited an example of a parent-teacher association establishing better crosswalks. In New York, the university community has served as a “major catalyst” for senior living, she said.
Some states have set lofty goals. Iowa launched an initiative aiming to make the state the nation’s healthiest by 2016.
At the local level, governments take their own approaches to adapting communities for older residents. Arlington County, Virginia, established a task force to deal with the issue. Much of the county’s efforts have centered around transportation and urban planning, such as ensuring buses sit low enough to easily allow riders to board and modifying sidewalks to better accommodate walkers and wheelchairs.
Pennsylvania House Rep. Chris Ross also talked about of the challenges of the demographic shift in his district.
Many of the revenue sources the state uses to fund senior services haven’t met increased costs, he said. The state has relied, in part, on gaming revenues, but that pot of money has dwindled as casinos face added competition from out-of-state operations. The Pennsylvania Lottery, which Gov. Tom Corbett recently privatized, also funds transportation and related services benefiting seniors.
Ross discussed the need for adult day care, particularly for seniors who aren’t able to fully care for themselves, but do not suffer from serious ailments. Rather than place these individuals in expensive nursing homes, he said officials should encourage drop-in centers and managed home care.
Ross also mentioned improving housing options, with older homes often not suiting the needs of seniors. Enabling developers to retrofit buildings, many of which are vacant, should be streamlined. Licensing for senior living should be appropriate, but not “excessively burdensome,” Ross said.