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Census numbers predict exponential growth in senior population

Businesses need to prepare for financial and work force impact

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In November 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau released statistics giving us a real snapshot of what the U.S. senior population looks like now and what is to come in the future. And it’s a warning for all of us.

The graying of the United States is like a tsunami. Think of the census report as the water receding, warning us that something big is coming our way. The wave of baby boomers crashing onto our shores over the next 20 years will challenge us in ways not seen in our history. Couple this with the ongoing state and federal cuts to senior services and seniors struggling to make ends meet, and we have one heck of a storm and subsequent messy aftermath to clean up.

By 2035, one in four Americans will be age 65 or older, but the rapid growth has already begun to occur. Consider these statistics from the U.S. census report:

• The U.S. senior population increased by 15.1 percent, while the population in general only increased by 9.7 percent. This means there has been exponential growth among seniors across the nation between 2000 and 2010.

• There was a 48 percent increase in people age 85 and up, and it has doubled or tripled in some cities in the last decade. The rapid growth will continue, as the nation’s baby boomers turn 65 and begin to live longer as well.

• San Diego County also saw a 15 percent increase in the senior population in the last decade. Our region was home to 351,425 residents age 65 and older in 2010, which represents 11.4 percent of the county’s total population. Today, one in 10 residents is age 65 or older.

Currently in San Diego, two out of five seniors lack adequate resources to meet their basic needs and struggle to live day by day. This storm could have damaging effects on everything, including infrastructure, housing, health care, employment; our whole economy could be devastated. It’s time for business and policy leaders to wake up and prepare for this storm with proper aging policy and infrastructure. The numbers are real. Here’s what’s brewing:

• Baby boomers on average have fewer children, resources and family members to support them. Thus, these seniors will rely on government support, such as housing and long-term care services. Medicare may be the biggest issue, as the current system won’t handle the influx of seniors who need support.

• With tens of thousands of boomers hitting the traditional retirement age of 65, we will begin losing vital members of our work force. As a result, employers will be forced to offer incentives, such as job sharing, bonuses, working from home, etc., to seniors to continue working. If seniors do not continue to work, we will not have enough people to sustain our economy.

• Loss of work force is a loss of Social Security taxes, resulting in a shrinking amount of money dedicated to seniors. This will continue until there are more people working than retired. It’s a simple arithmetic problem.

• Adults in their 30s and 40s are finding themselves in the “Sandwich Generation” — they are busy taking care of their own kids and their parents as well. A 2009 study revealed 29 percent of the U.S. adult population provides an average of 20 hours of care per week, most often in addition to part-time or full-time employment.

There are ways to ease the strain. Medicare will need to be remodeled to be more efficient and more HMO-like. The system needs to focus more on wellness and staying healthy before seniors become sick. This is why nonprofit organizations like Senior Community Centers are crucial to communities, as they provide nutrition and wellness services for people to remain strong, independent and financially protected.

Additionally, continued employment allows seniors to be socially engaged and provide valuable insight and wisdom to our work force. All these factors will help keep older adults stronger physically and financially and less dependent on government and social service organizations.

I've visited with community groups, and these numbers and the care-giving pressures younger adults are facing are real. It’s time for all of us to actively discuss options and plan ahead to integrate solutions and protect ourselves from stormy conditions that may destroy our future infrastructure.

Downey is the president and CEO of Senior Community Centers, a nonprofit agency dedicated to increasing the quality of life for San Diego seniors living in poverty. Learn more at www.servingseniors.org.

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