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Successful Aging: Senior tsunami is reshaping the landscape

Angelyn Frankenberg
Angelyn Frankenberg
Staff Photo |

I was only half joking when I ended my inaugural column a year ago saying that “60 is the new 40.” Educating ourselves about what we can do to avoid or delay negative physical and mental effects that we used to attribute to normal aging — and doing it — is making chronological age less meaningful to baby boomers than to previous generations.

When I say “90 is the new 75,” though, I am talking about demographics, not health, and urging my cohort to look realistically at the unprecedented shift in age distribution that is upon us.

Bob Semro, health policy analyst at Colorado’s Bell Policy Center, summarized the shift in these words: “Both Colorado and the nation are facing a demographic shift that is historically unprecedented. The senior tsunami began in 2011 when the first of the baby boomers turned 65 and it will be nearing its end sometime after 2050 when the last of the baby boomers turns 85.”

Did you just yawn because statistics aren’t your thing? Or did you find the sentence mildly interesting but ask “so what?”

Here’s what. Semro’s characterization of this shift in age distribution as a tsunami is accurate because it’s big, it’s scary, we can’t stop it and many of us are not prepared for it. This change in population distribution is an issue for people of all ages because it will challenge public and private resources and our ability to cooperate and create new solutions.

I heard Semro’s presentation — a shorter version of his testimony before Colorado’s House Committee on Public Health and Human Services in 2014 — at a recent Glenwood Springs Rotary Club meeting. I realized that even though I talk a lot about our “aging population,” I had not thought much about what it means for us as a society.

So yes, I am going to throw a few statistics at you. These are all from Semro’s presentation, which you can find online at http://tinyurl.com/SeniorTsunami.

Starting numbers:

• By 2030, Colorado’s 65-plus population will reach 1,242,000 people compared with 550,000 in 2010. That is a 123 percent increase.

• By 2040, Colorado’s 65-plus population will reach 1,475,000 and will make up 19 percent of the state’s total.

• The ratio of workers to nonworkers in Colorado will be falling from 68 percent to 59 percent between 2010 and 2040.

We all know about Social Security’s problems, which come from both sides. As more people are living longer, the ratio of workers paying into the system to retirees drawing from the system is decreasing. But the population shift affects private resources too. Private insurance depends on younger, healthier workers paying into programs.

Like you, I do not believe my husband and I will need long-term care or even part-time help in our home — at least not for an extended time period — as we age. And I believe we will have enough money to sustain a comfortable middle-class life until the end.

But statistics indicate that many of us are wrong. More scary numbers:

• Seventy percent of Americans who reach the age of 65 will need some form of long-term care at some point in their lives. This means that at least 930,000 Coloradans will require long-term services in 2030 and beyond.

• The average length of long-term support is three years but 20 percent will require long term care for more than five years.

How do we pay for that care? According to the Long Term Care Commission Report to Congress in 2013, cited by Semro: “Individuals and families rarely have sufficient resources (either savings or private insurance) to pay for an extended period of LTSS (long term services and supports). … Nearly two-thirds of the cost of LTSS is financed by the federal and state governments through the Medicaid program.”

The report also reveals significant financial concerns and the potential effects of all these elements on state and national budgets. Read it, think about it, and share it with your children and younger friends (go ahead, make their day). Semro said he fears the worst possible outcome: that this tsunami will result in fights over limited resources instead of cooperation to find solutions. In an increasingly polarized society, I fear he is right.

I know I have to learn — and write — more about these issues. Tell me about your experiences and ideas. We can only solve these problems by working together.

Angelyn Frankenberg is a wellness coach and writer living in Carbondale. She has a master’s in physical education and an undergraduate degree in music. Reach her at afrankenberg@postindependent.com.


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