Aging Gracefully?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Participants at the Tri-State Roundtable on Aging, held last week in Portsmouth, did not beat around the old bush. Rapidly aging populations in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, conferees noted, present a formidable challenge for local and state governments. The trend will have significant implications for health care, housing, school districts, the work force, and, of course, state economies as a whole. In fact, the “silver tsunami,” as some are dubbing the demographic trend, will affect almost every public policy arena.

It’s not that a wave of oldsters is going to crash onto Northern New England’s shores. They’re already here. A large proportion of the region’s residents are nearing retirement age, and projected migration patterns suggest that insufficient numbers of younger adults will migrate here to maintain the current balance. Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont have the nation’s oldest populations based on median age, according to the U.S. Census. Maine leads at 44 years, followed by Vermont at 42.5 and New Hampshire at 42.3. The national median is 37.

Skewing the median age in Northern New England, as elsewhere, are the relatively large numbers of baby boomers, born between 1944 and 1964 and now reaching their “golden” years. “We’re looking at 30 to 40 more years of the baby boom being essentially a major part of the population,” pointed out Charles Colgan, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern Maine.

In New Hampshire, residents 65 and older will account for nearly 20 percent of the state’s population by 2020, up from 13.5 percent in 2010, according to a report by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, whose executive director, Steve Norton, described the population projections and their impact as “grim.” “We’re not going to have enough people to actually run local governments, but we’re also not going to have enough kids to run schools anymore,” Norton told the gathering.

We trust there will still be schoolchildren and school in the decades to come, but Norton’s comment touches on the reason the population trend is worrisome. Economically vibrant states need the right demographic balance, one that allows for sufficient revenue-generating workers to help support the elderly, who are more dependent than younger adults on costly social services, including health care and specialized housing such as nursing homes. The aging population will put tremendous pressure on, among other sectors, state health care programs. The number of individuals participating in New Hampshire’s Medicaid program, for example, will increase 30 percent by 2020, assuming that those eligible continue to use services at the same rate as they do today. That’s grim news indeed in a state that now struggles mightily to finance long-term care and community-based services under Medicaid.

“Where the elders are isn’t where the money is,” said Ken Jones, an economic research analyst with the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

How will states muster the resources required to care for rising numbers of elderly? The answer is that they probably won’t, given political and fiscal realities. That’s why there was a lot of talk at the conference about innovation, including regional initiatives and public-private partnerships to help adults age in place or to assist with transportation and affordable housing.

“Rather than looking at aging as a problem,” said Rep. Terie Norelli, outgoing speaker of the New Hampshire House, “let’s look at how you can spin it around and turn it into an economic opportunity.” States that manage to spin it successfully might find that the silver tsunami need not be the economic wipeout experts imagine.