America Has an Aging Issue, With No Apparent Strategy

 Population projections indicate older Americans will outnumber young Americans in less than 25 years from now, which will pose profound challenges in housing, transportation, health care, family structure and politics. We aren’t prepared to address or capitalize on what such a change will mean.

Population projections indicate older Americans will outnumber young Americans in less than 25 years from now, which will pose profound challenges in housing, transportation, health care, family structure and politics. We aren’t prepared to address or capitalize on what such a change will mean.

Public affairs firms like CFM grapple with complex, difficult challenges such as multi-million-dollar infrastructure investments, large residential developments and controversial public policies.

As challenging as those can be, there is a looming challenge of even larger proportions: America has an aging issue.

In just 25 years from now, there will be more older Americans than young ones. No generation is prepared for, or seemingly fully aware of, the consequences.

This is not a bad news story. People are simply living longer. That’s a good thing. But is also can be a challenging thing.

For one, many older Americans lack the financial reserves to sustain themselves for a longer retirement. If you retire at 65 and have savings to carry you through for 10 years, but live until you are 85, that’s a pretty big financial gap, with no ready source to bridge the gap. Many seniors lack financial reserves. As The New York Times reports, pensions have vanished, costs for housing and medical care have soared and older people have reached the brink. As a result bankruptcies by older Americans have tripled since 1991.

Quality medical care is one reason people have longer life expectancies. However, the longer you live, the greater the chance of incurring chronic illness or some kind of trauma, such as a fall or heart attack. Medicare doesn’t cover the full cost of all health care for the elderly. And many older Americans are poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. Both health care programs are already under financial stress.

Housing is another concern. In addition to rising costs, older people must contend with stairs with ever more creaking knees. There is a surprising lack of single-story housing or housing with main floor bedrooms to accommodate seniors. Higher land costs and the push for greater density create bad market conditions for single-story housing in urban areas.

Optimally, older Americans can stay in their homes, close to their network of family and friends. As people grow older, friends die and family members aren’t always nearby. To stay at home and independent, older people need in-home care, which requires home care workers trained to assist the elderly. There is a shortage of such workers that may be hard to overcome because well-trained caregivers have other, more gainful options.

Mobility is an issue. At some point, older people shouldn’t be driving. They become dependent on others to give them a ride to the grocery store, doctor or a senior citizen center. Nonprofit programs such as Meals on Wheels can provide nourishing meals to shut-ins, but can’t keep up with growing demand. Shuttles, taxis and, someday, driverless cars help, but only for those who can afford them or live in communities that provide them.

Older people are viewed as prime targets by scammers. But friends and family can take advantage of older people, as evidenced by the surprisingly large number of reported cases of elder financial and physical abuse.

Amid this gloomy picture are some interesting opportunities. Many people retain their vitality and ability to work far past age 65. Instead of retiring, these people could contribute to the economy by continuing filling jobs that require specialized skills, assisting nonprofit organizations and mentoring younger people. Think of the movie, The Intern, in which Robert DeNiro’s character becomes a crucial part of the maturation of a recent startup. There also are plenty of examples of older people who volunteer or work for nominal salaries to modernize nonprofit accounting, hiring and communication processes.

One of the best sources of support for older people still living at home are other older people. “Getting older” seniors who still drive become drivers. Groups of older people form clubs or regularly socialize. Older people with medical training or knowledge often make sure their friends see their doctors regularly, take their medication and eat properly.

Efforts are underway to create age-friendly communities that take into account what people can and can’t do easily, which can range from walkable streets to clusters of key service providers. There is an Age-Friendly chapter in Portland that has created an action plan addressing housing, transportation, open spaces (gardens), social spaces and civil rights.

Despite those helpful actions, many older people are left on their own, with little support. Their world collapses in on them, financially, socially and emotionally. Their quality of life suffers and their potential to make contributions to their family, friends and community are sacrificed.

There isn’t a single silver-bullet solution to America’s aging challenge, which incidentally is not unique. China has the same emerging issue, which its leaders recognize will have profound effects on their country’s economy, social structure and political system.

What’s called for is wider recognition of the challenge and how it will affect virtually everyone regardless of age, political views, income or geography. A start would be to view the challenge as an opportunity to enable people who live longer to contribute longer. But it is an opportunity with opportunity costs. We will need to rethink how older people receive care – and from whom – as they age. We will need to fortify programs such as Medicare and Medicaid so they can address growing demand. We will need to modify how we think about older people in the workplace. We will need to view older people as assets, not burdens.

America’s aging issue isn’t an abstraction or someone else’s problem; it is every American’s issue. It will take every American to turn aging from a challenge to an opportunity.

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.