With a renewed national focus on fitness trumpeting the benefits of healthy diet and regular exercise, and with continuing improvements in the treatment of once life-threatening conditions (heart …
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With a renewed national focus on fitness trumpeting the benefits of healthy diet and regular exercise, and with continuing improvements in the treatment of once life-threatening conditions (heart disease, cancers, etc.), many in the 78-million member Baby Boomer army are expected to live well past their 60s, raising the national life expectancy to previously unforeseen levels.
The parents of the Baby Boom generation – those born roughly between 1910 and 1925 – had a life expectancy at birth of some 55 years. Those who were fortunate enough to avoid illness and accident long enough to make it to the age of 65 were rewarded with an average life expectancy of 12 more years.
Boomers, on the other hand, started off their travels on Planet Earth with a much-improved lease on life of 72 years. Should a Boomer make it to 65, statistics now predict an additional 20-25 years “looking at the grass from the green side.” In other words, they’re likely to live almost twice as long as “senior citizens,” as did their parents!
For decades, life in America has been oriented, engineered and arranged with the young and middle-aged in mind. Demographic studies now indicate that government at all levels should be preparing to serve an entirely different population. In 1900, people 65 years of age and older represented a mere 4 percent of the population. Today, that number has risen to 12 percent, and by 2030 it should hit 20 percent.
At the same time, birth rates have declined so that while the population of individuals over the age of 50 will grow by nearly three quarters over the next 15 years or so, the population of those under 50 is expected to increase by a mere 1 percent during the same period. By 2050, 40 percent of the U.S. population will be over the age of 50; for the first time in history, seniors will outnumber children and youth.
At the far end of the aging spectrum, America’s eldest population group is growing the fastest. Americans age 85 and up numbered some 4 million in 2000. That number is expected to pass 19 million by 2050. Today there are five people in the work force for every one on Social Security. “We’re moving towards a time when that number will be two-to-one,” said Janice Blanchard, director of the Aging In Community Network, and former director of Denver’s Office on Aging.”
Obviously, the delivery of services provided by those charged with assuring our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, will need some serious tinkering, if not a complete overhaul.
Health care, housing, transportation, land use planning, public safety, lifelong learning, parks and recreation, workforce development, volunteerism, arts and entertainment, and financial planning are all areas that will challenge the ability of government agencies to serve and protect.
Unfortunately, according to a study commissioned by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, 46 percent of all municipalities surveyed are not anywhere near ready to meet the challenge that will roll in as the silver tsunami gathers strength in the coming years.
“We’re the largest group of Americans now alive,” said Blanchard, a Boomer herself. “We’re huge, we’re all-consuming. We transformed American housing by forcing creation of the suburbs. We exploded on- campus housing at colleges and universities. We exploded townhomes.”
Blanchard sees Denver’s challenge as potentially more demanding than other cities nationwide, explaining: “Denver has the highest per capita Boomer population in the country. We can’t build our way out of this. There is not enough money for the needs we have now, no less for the larger numbers coming in short order. Programs like Medicaid and Social Security need a large work force to thrive, and that work force will begin to decline.”
Even if money were available, Blanchard says the model for the ideal senior lifestyle has changed radically from the prevailing wisdom of the past few decades.
Instead of segregating older citizens in age-specific developments, current wisdom favors intergenerational communities that welcome – and accommodate – all ages and abilities. More and more, senior citizens are expressing a desire to age in their homes rather than relocate. In fact, 90 percent of adults 60 and older say they want to stay in their home or community rather than uproot themselves late in life, a 2006 AARP study found.
“The Fair Housing Act of 1995 legitimized age discrimination. (Developer) Del Webb invented ‘retirement’ to sell houses, and lured seniors from their homes,” said Blanchard. “The social fabric of our communities is threadbare from social segregation. How often do you see three generations of a family living in the same community nowadays? There is no intergenerational support. It used to be, families were their own support network. Some lived together. Grandma watched the kids after school so mom and dad could work.
“The big push over the past five years has been toward the creation of ‘livable communities,’” said Blanchard. “‘New Urbanism’ is great in some ways, but it gives no thought to issues of aging. It deals with a world designed for men who are 6 feet tall and weigh 180 pounds. There are six steps to get into everywhere, and doors too narrow for wheelchairs. We need to think about ‘zero (no steps) entry’ and 36-inch-wide doors. We need to think about ‘universal architecture’ that has fixtures, appliances, countertops, etc., accessible for all ages and physical abilities, young and old, strong and not as strong. Ageism is the last bastion of legitimized discrimination.
“We need to create amenities and a lifestyle that will keep seniors engaged in Denver rather than running off to Florida or Arizona,” said Blanchard. “We need to reweave our social fabric.”
Lucia Guzman is one of those assigned to protect that fabric. As director of Denver’s Agency For Human Rights, the Denver Office On Aging falls under her oversight.
Guzman shares Blanchard’s sense of urgency. “Aging has never been seen as a priority in the past. That’s why we’ve made such an effort to educate the city infrastructure on age-related issues.”
Guzman identified Denver’s aging population as a key policy concern in 2005, inspiring Mayor John Hickenlooper to convene the “Mayor’s Summit On Aging” in November 2006. This gathering of city employees aimed to enlighten city managers to the scope of the demographic shift under way, and prompt them to consider how their programs might be reconfigured to better serve an evolving population: “ ... to begin looking at the decisions made in their departments through a lens of aging,” said Guzman. Some 300 people took part.
“The bad news,” says the Summit On Aging report, “is that the city of Denver – like more than half of the other American cities surveyed – has done little to prepare for the demographic changes underway. The good news is that almost half of American communities surveyed have made some progress in creating policies, services and programs to improve the physical containers as well as social software to make their communities better places for people of all ages and abilities.”
“City departments focusing on housing need to look at issues of affordability and accessibility for seniors,” said Guzman. “We need to remove zoning and building code barriers. Are our recreation centers getting ready for their new audience? And as far as work force issues – a large number of those getting ready to retire will be retiring from city jobs. Will we be willing to recruit workers over the age of 50? Will we accommodate flexible schedules?”
The Mayor’s Summit On Aging report states further that our nation is facing a “brain drain” of its most experienced workers. One in five of our country’s largest, most established companies will lose 40 percent or more of their top-level executives in the next five years, through retirement. Half of the U.S. government’s civilian work force will be lost as well. Nationwide, 54 percent of those over the age of 45 will retire over the next decade.
In 2007, the Denver Aging Steering Committee was formed with a mission to discuss the feasibility of the recommendations presented by the Mayor’s Summit, and to create a framework and steps toward implementation of those recommendations. One of those recommendations – since put into play – was creation of the Denver Office On Aging. “Aging is not just about older residents,” said Guzman. “It’s important that someone in their 20s and 30s be thinking about financial planning and health-related issues in advance, to make their later years more rewarding,” said Guzman.
In 2008, Denver took the next step toward addressing the challenge before it, with formation of the Age Matters Initiative Task Force. The Task Force was formed to take the process out of the philosophical arena, and move forward with implementation. City managers have been directed to come up with specific ideas for programs in their areas of responsibility to help create a more livable Denver.
Among the ideas that have surfaced so far are: Information Services – expansion of the city’s 311 phone system as an information resource for seniors; Office of Cultural Affairs – enhancing cross-generational cultural programming and involving retirees with artistic talent in the city’s Revolving Loan program; Parks and Recreation – provide more vans for seniors so they can access more programs, and “inquire whether new seniors” want their own facilities and programs or if they prefer mainstreamed programs with the general population; Career Service Authority – educate city employees on retirement planning alternatives and explore ways that city retirees can return to part-time employment with the city; Public Works – improve signage and signal lights for greater visibility; and, Zoning – incorporate the needs of aging adults in Denver’s Zoning Code update.
As of this date, Denver has not budgeted large amounts of money for individual projects. “Our only funding,” said Guzman, “is the challenge to do the work we need to do with the resources we have at this time. Many of our bond issue projects are still being designed; there’s still time to influence them. We’re seeing new traffic lights go in with larger numbers indicating crossing times and brighter lights to help both pedestrians and drivers.”
Another shift needed to properly address the needs of the new senior population is to “retool – to not think of (older residents) as a population with needs, but as a population with assets,” said Denver City Councilman Doug Linkhart, a member of the AMITF. “People aren’t seeing the value of this group clearly enough. They (seniors) don’t want to just lick envelopes, they want to contribute as senior fellows – to make use of their decades of life experience. Tom Clark, a speaker at the 2006 Mayor’s Summit spoke about the senior population as three groups: the Go-Gos – those not really affected yet by aging; the Slow-Gos – those beginning to feel impacts of age; and the No-Gos – those who have been impacted and need substantial assistance. Each group has its unique set of needs and assets.”
Blanchard concurs: “We need our elders. We need their wisdom. Whether we’re about to be pulled under by a silver tsunami or carried forward on a golden wave of opportunity depends upon how policy makers and community planners capitalize on these changing demographics.”
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