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Why American Communities Are Not Prepared for an Aging Population

Less than half of cities and counties can meet the needs of aging baby boomers


Senior woman holding lavender plant
Andrew Bret Wallis/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Aging Population in the U.S.
Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are approaching retirement age.

The oldest baby boomers turned 60 in 2006, and when the trend peaks in 2030, the number of people over age 65 will soar to 71.5 million -- one in every five Americans. This is twice the number in 2000, according to "The Maturing of America: Getting Communities on Track for an Aging Population,” published by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) and funded by the MetLife Foundation.

“To respond to the rapid rise in their aging population, communities will need to provide larger street signage, accessible housing, age appropriate fitness programs, as well as lifelong learning and job re-training opportunities. Although targeted to an aging population, these services would improve the quality of life for citizens of all ages,” said Sandy Markwood, n4a CEO, in a news release.

What the Aging Population Study Reveals
Highlights of the aging population study include:

  • Health Care – In one third of the U.S. communities surveyed, older adults do not have access to a range of needed preventive health care services such as health education, community-based health screenings, and counseling about prescription drug programs.
  • Nutrition – 80 percent of U.S. communities have programs providing home-delivered meals for older adults, but only 25 percent provide nutrition education for seniors.
  • Exercise – More than one-third of communities do not have fitness programs for older adults, although 86 percent report having biking or walking trails.
  • Transportation – Many communities are not addressing the mobility needs of an aging population. For example, only 56 percent reported having “dial a ride” or door-to-door transportation services, and only 40 percent reported having road signage that meets the needs of older drivers.
  • Public Safety/Emergency Services – More than 33 percent of communities do not have a system to locate older adults who become ill or wander due to Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. And 70 percent do not have prevention programs for elder abuse and neglect.
  • Housing – Only half of the communities reported having home modification programs helping older adults adapt existing homes for physical limitations. The study says this is important because a vast majority of older adults prefer to remain in their own homes as they age.
  • Taxation/Finance – More than a third of communities do not provide tax relief for older adults living on limited incomes.
  • Workforce Development – Over 40 percent of U.S. communities do not offer formal job training and retraining programs to help older adults remain in the workforce, however 45 percent reported that discounts were provided at local colleges and universities for older adults who are interested in taking classes.
  • Civic Engagement/Volunteer Opportunities – More than 60 percent of U.S. communities provide civic engagement or volunteer opportunities, including those for older adults. Most are offered through Senior Corps programs including the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), Senior Companions and Foster Grandparents.
  • Aging/Human Services – Many communities do not offer a single point of entry for information and access to all aging services, even though it is expected that aging baby boomers will demand it.

How the Aging Population Study was Conducted
The study was designed to address three important community readiness questions:

  1. Are efforts being made to assess and put into place programs, policies and services that address the needs of older adults and their caregivers?
  2. Can cities and counties ensure that their communities are “livable” for all ages – not only good places to grow up, but good places to grow old?
  3. How well equipped is an area to harness the talent, wisdom and experience of older adults to contribute to their community?

In November 2005, the aging population study began with a survey sent to thousands of local governments. Data was analyzed to determine their “aging readiness,” and a more in-depth survey was sent to the 500 communities whose initial responses indicated a high degree of readiness.

Results of the aging population study show that while many communities have some programs to address the needs of an aging population, very few have a comprehensive assessment of what it would take to make their community “elder friendly.”

“Though there are many positive findings, this report is a wake-up call,” Markwood said. “As the first of the baby boomers turn 60 [in 2006], communities should begin planning to address this major demographic trend. We hope this report encourages community leaders to take proactive measures, spurred by the many cities and counties whose examples are demonstrating the many ways to make life better for older adults and those who care for them, and by doing so, strengthening entire communities in the process.”

To read the full report, see “The Maturing of America: Getting Communities on Track for an Aging Population”.

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