“I hope I die before I get old…”
That line from Pete Townsend's iconic rock and roll anthem, “My Generation,” might have helped American baby boomers break free from the shackles of a repressive establishment in 1965, but it’s evident today that not many of them got their wish.
“Every 7.5 seconds, another baby boomer turns 50,” said Sandy Markwood, CEO of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (N4A). And, barring any unforeseen catastrophe, not many of them will be dying anytime soon. In fact, by 2030, analysts say, more than 70 million Americans – twice the number in 2000 – will be 65 or older. At that time, older adults will comprise nearly one in five Americans.
Markwood, a former urban planner, and two policy advisors from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) spoke at the recent New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in Kansas City, Mo., in a presentation on “strategies for creating communities for all ages.”
The first of the post-World War II baby boom generation, those born between 1946 and 1964, entered the ranks of the 65-and-older crowd in 2011.
“So, you can no longer talk about the fact that the baby boomers are coming,” Markwood said to advocates for older Americans. “The aging of the baby boomers is here.”
But, while those post-war babies grab the headlines, as they usually do, Markwood said they’re not the only ones coming ashore with the silver tsunami. The fastest growing segment of older Americans is actually the 80-plus age group, meaning that the parents of baby boomers are living longer just as their children are joining them on the plus side of 50. The combined effect will impact Americans of every age, Markwood said.
“We’ve got a dramatically increasing aging population that has just begun to turn into what once was called the ‘golden years,’” she said. “We’ll see how we define it, and/or redefine it, as the baby boomers age.”
“Old age isn’t really what it used to be,” Markwood said as she juxtaposed photos of an attractive Tina Turner and a haggard Anna McNeill Whistler (made famous in the 1871 portrait, Whistler’s Mother). Both women were 61 years old at the time they were photographed, yet Turner looks 20 years younger.
Life expectancy in America has increased from an average of 46 years in 1900 to more than 77 today.
“We’ve really redefined what aging is in this country and we’re just at the beginning of that redefinition,” Markwood said. “All older adults aren’t alike… so, when you’re planning for an aging population, please recognize the fact that you’re planning for multiple generations.”
The aging population also has a widely diverse racial and socioeconomic makeup. And, while the correlation between age and disability is not a direct one-to-one correlation, it’s still a fact that disability does increase as a population ages, Markwood said.
While the aging of America will create new challenges, not all the indicators are negative, she pointed out.
“Older people are not just a drag on society. In fact, they’re workers, they’re entrepreneurs, they’re volunteers, they’re consumers, they’re homeowners, they’re investors. So, there are a lot of positives that come with an aging population. But, to be able to age successfully, people need to plan,” she said.
That planning needs to happen at a personal level, as well as at a family and community level, she said. And, it won’t just impact your aging services department. Markwood said whole communities need to be prepared for significant impacts to:
• Housing – Modifying existing housing, developing new housing, regenerating housing in downtown areas, developing new active communities and assisted living facilities, and developing new technologies that assist aging people in their existing homes.
• Transportation – Making roads safer for older drivers, making communities more walkable with safer sidewalks and street crossings, expanding mass transit options, increasing mobility management efforts.
• Economic Development – Taking advantage of the fact that older people create economic opportunities and attract new businesses.
• Public Safety – Promoting safe communities, preventing elder abuse, altering plans for emergencies and disasters.
• Recreation – Providing multi-generational community facilities and civic programs.
N4A and a variety of local government interest groups conducted a survey of 10,000 U.S. cities and counties in 2011, finding that less than half of them had even begun planning for an aging population. In its report, “The Maturing of America,” the research team concluded:
“…As a result of the severe economic challenges associated with the recession, most communities have been able only to “hold the line”— maintaining policies, programs and services already established. Thus, they have not been able to move forward to the degree needed to address the nation’s current “age wave.” The survey captures encouraging steps forward in some areas, and retrenchment in others. But overall, it appears that many communities are struggling to maintain the status quo.
“We call upon policymakers at all levels of government, but particularly at the local level, to move forward energetically – even if incrementally – to address the challenges at hand.”
Markwood said the report includes examples of what some communities are doing to implement whole-scale planning – looking across the board at all the things they do and how those things will be impacted by an aging population.
“The bottom line is that looking at developing livable communities for all ages is good planning; it’s good governance and it’s good for everyone,” Markwood said. “Whatever you do to plan for an aging population will help all of your citizens.”
Rodney Harrell, Ph.D., senior strategic policy advisor for AARP’s Housing/Livable Communities Public Policy Institute, said the recent recession not only impacted local governments, but caught many older Americans off guard. He said a 2012 survey indicated a growing number of baby boomers are concerned that they may not be able to afford to stay in their homes as they grow older. And, a recent AARP study suggests they may be right.
“Over the last decade, all age groups have really hit financial difficulties and that’s reflected by the fact that more older adults now have mortgages,” Harrell said. He said the study showed a significant shift from 2000, when the majority of homeowners over 50 owned their homes “free and clear,” to 2009 when the majority had a mortgage. In 2011, one out of seven who still had a mortgage owed more than the home was worth, the study showed.
“And, more importantly, housing cost burdens are worsening for older adults,” Harrell said. The study showed the percentage of middle-income people 50 and over who spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing increased from 20 to 29 percent between 2000 and 2009. That threshold defines a household as “housing-cost burdened,” he said, “meaning you can’t afford things like emergency health care if something like that comes up.”
Harrell said the study concluded that housing affordability for middle-class older adults is in jeopardy and will likely worsen as the population age 50-plus grows over the coming decades. The recent decline in home values will further limit the choices of homeowners who must rely on their home equity to pay for supportive services or housing alternatives, the report noted.
Jana Lynott, also an AARP public policy advisor, said the use of public transportation by older Americans increased by 40 percent between 2001 and 2009. About 16 percent of that ridership was on transit vehicles specialized for older or handicapped users, she said.
Lynott said one way communities are expanding the potential of these services is through mobility management.
“This can take many forms, from bringing the stakeholders together to do very integrated public transit/human services transportation planning, to reaching out to the land-use planning community, as well as being a broker to help put the consumer in touch with the transportation services available to them in the community,” she said.
One example of this exists at the Marin Access Mobility Management Center in Marin County, Calif.
“They have found a sustainable form of funding for their mobility management services,” Lynott said. “In 2010 voters approved a referendum to increase their vehicle registration fees by $10 annually. All of that funding is going to transportation in the county, but 35 percent of it is dedicated to the mobility center,” she said.
AARP’s Public Policy Institute has a variety of research papers, surveys and reports on its web site at: