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Facts on Aging

Aging in America: The Coming Age Wave


KC Communities for All Ages was formed in 2008 to coordinate a community response to the future needs of the aging baby boomer generation. The Kansas City area's older adult population is expected to nearly double over the next 20 years, from almost 180,000 in 2007 to more than 372,000 by the year 2030 — a 107 percent increase. The KC Communities for All Ages initiative will focus on five major areas: housing, transportation and mobility, social and civic engagement, caregiving, and health.

What are the numbers?

  • There are now more people over age 65 than at any other time in American history.
  • Baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) began turning 65 in January 2011 at the rate of 10,000 per day. This "aging" will continue at the rate of 10,000 every day for the next 20 years.
  • Our average life expectancy has risen from 47.3 years in 1900 to 78.3 years today.
  • By 2030, 20 percent of Americans, 75 million people, will be 65 or older compared to 42 million today. The number of those 85 and older will be close to 21 million.
  • Women make up three-fourths of the 90-and-over population today. The number of people age 90 or older has tripled since 1980 to 1.9 million and that number is projected to reach 8.7 million by 2050, or 1:10 older Americans.
  • Eight out of ten of this age group are white; 7.6 percent African-American; 4 percent Hispanic and 2.2 percent Asian.

How we communicate about growing old in our nation

  • Many Americans have an attitude of "ageism," believing that older people fail and die, and therefore meeting their needs is not as important as other public issues such as early childhood care or domestic abuse.
  • Communications strategies concerning the elderly are framed around the concept of the "frail elderly" and urgently need to be updated to reflect the reality: 80 percent of seniors will never be "frail." Most seniors are physically and socially active.

Meeting the challenges of an aging population will impact our economy

Who will support us in our retirement years? According to the United Nations, by 2020, the percentage and number of persons age 65 and older in the world will be greater than those age five and younger. Even Ben Bernanke, former chair of the Federal Reserve, warned that an aging American population poses fiscal challenges for the nation. (New York Times, April 2010) The Federal Reserve Bank warns that boomer retirement could slow the economic recovery. The Social Security Board of Trustees recently forecast that the combined assets of the trust funds will be exhausted by 2033, three years sooner than the previous 2011 projection.

In a recent AARP survey of members, only 12 percent said the future of Medicare and Social Security can be viable without changes, and that any changes should be made gradually so people can plan for their future. They believe adjustments should not affect people currently in or near retirement.

Many older adults face challenges of inadequate finances

When Social Security began in 1935, close to 50 percent of the elderly American population lived in poverty. By 1959, the poverty rate had fallen to 35 percent, but remained higher than that of other age groups including children and working-age adults. During the 1960s and early '70s, Social Security benefits increased and poverty rates among the elderly declined. By 1974, the poverty rate for elderly Americans had fallen below that for children, where it remained. In 1993, it fell below the rate for working-age adults. Today, about 11 percent of the elderly have incomes below the federal poverty line.

The Social Security Administration estimates that 47 percent of individuals age 65 or older would live in poverty without Social Security benefits, four times as many in poverty today. 10 million seniors survive on an annual income of $10,800 and half of those 65 or older have individual annual incomes of less than $18,500.

Some facts about older adults' finances:

  • One-third of families whose head of household is 65–74 have at least $40,000 of debt.
  • 70 percent of seniors are spending 30 percent or more of their income on housing. 40 percent spend half.
  • 70 percent of Medicare beneficiaries spend at least 10 percent of their income on medical expenses. Older and poorer seniors spend closer to 25 percent.
  • 60 percent of families whose head of household is 65 or older have no money in retirement savings accounts. Of those boomers with any savings, half have less than $60,800
  • 20 percent of those over age 65 will never be able to retire and 50 percent are one event away from being forced into economic hardship and bankruptcy.
  • Only 3 percent of adults carry long-term care insurance that could help them with the financial burden of nursing home care.
  • The lack of "financial literacy" is significantly detrimental to retirement planning.

Unfortunately, millions of seniors are missing out on more than $20 billion in Social Security benefits, for which they qualify but don't know are available. Other seniors, who do receive the benefits, depend solely on that income, approximately $12,000 a year, and must use these minimal resources on substandard housing, food, and limited health care.

What is the health of our older adult population?

People under age 65 without health insurance become sick at a younger age and stay sick longer after they turn 65. Those on Medicaid also get sick earlier, and they don't get quality medical care.

One in four Americans has multiple chronic health conditions. That number increases to two of every three persons over age 65 and those who are poor and disabled. Two-thirds of health care dollars and 96 percent of Medicare dollars are used to meet the needs of those with multiple chronic conditions. Too many health care resources are spent on hospital readmissions within 30 days of discharge.

Predictions indicate that there will be 45,000 fewer new physicians in the next 10 years. Only 2 percent of medical doctors choose to specialize in gerontology.

Obesity rates are 35 percent among adults, but projected to rise to 45 percent by 2020, which is double the rate in 1962. The consequences of the obesity epidemic include diabetes, heart disease and a host of other maladies. According to one study, the annual health care cost of obesity in America is $190 billion.

According to Fidelity Investments, a 65-year-old couple retiring in 2012 will need an estimated $240,000 to cover their medical expenses throughout retirement, a 4 percent increase from 2010.

Caregiving will become increasingly important

One in four adult Americans serve as caregivers to an elderly relative, friend or spouse experiencing difficulty managing daily activities. For those who can’t serve as caregivers for their own loved ones, choosing a caregiver is one of the most important decisions an adult child will ever face. Many delay this decision, or fail to prepare for the time when it must be made, until a crisis occurs.

Most seniors want to "age in place" rather than go to a nursing home. In fact, 80 percent of seniors are likely to stay in their homes because they will not require long-term institutional care until the very last days of their lives. This will bring issues of isolation, mobility challenges, and the need for new systems of medical/social services delivery. Caregiving, health delivery and transportation will become increasing challenges.

A report from AARP found that in 2009 about 42.1 million caregivers were caring for seniors at any given point in time.

Some facts about caregivers:

  • A typical caregiver is a 49-year old woman who works outside the home. The age of caregivers ranges from 16 to 98. 69 percent are female; 63 percent are married. Just over half have less than $30,000 annual income; 63 percent share the same household. 36 percent report fair to poor health.
  • Over half are people of color. 77 percent provide care every day. 53 percent report they provide care for someone with three or more problems.
  • Caregiving can take a considerable toll on the caregiver's physical and emotional health:
    • 69 percent said caregiving for a loved one was their number one source of stress.
    • Up to half of caregivers meet the diagnostic criteria for "major depression."
    • Up to 35 percent perceive their health as fair to poor - a higher range than non-caregivers report.
  • Caregivers also experience financial stress. Some even make sacrifices that potentially compromise their own retirement security. Average out-of-pocket expense for caregivers is $5,531 per year; $5,885 when the caregiver and care recipient live together; and $8,728 if helping from a distance. A recent study found that 60 percent of caregivers were concerned about the impact of providing care on their personal savings.
  • Caregivers to persons age 50 and older reported spending an average of more than 10 percent of their annual income on caregiving expenses. Those with the lowest incomes (less than $25,000) reported spending more than 20 percent of their annual income on caregiving expenses.
  • Almost 70 percent report "making work accommodations," including leaving early or taking time off. According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), employee time off for providing care to a senior adult now exceeds time off caring for a child. Estimates are that employees will lose some $3 trillion in wages and benefits because they must take time off from work to care for an aging parent.
  • There is a need to increase training for the nation’s caregiving workforce, but low wages and the absence of widespread standards and licensing policies present barriers to meeting that need.

What are the housing challenges older adults face?

Most senior adults live in private homes and rarely move. Over half of baby boomers said they were unlikely to move someplace new in retirement. An AARP study found that 89 percent of people age 50 and older said they would prefer to remain in their home indefinitely as they age. However, existing low-income housing stock is inadequate and deteriorating. The U.S. needs an additional 10,000 low-income housing units each year, but H.U.D. paid for only 600 in 2010, and that number is likely to decline.

Ideally, building "livable communities" — those with affordable and appropriate housing, supportive community features and services, and adequate mobility options - would be best, but many seniors live in neighborhoods built in the years following World War II, and these "naturally occurring retirement communities," referred to as "NORCs" may not offer the kinds of services and support their older populations need.

Additionally, many households are now "club sandwich" where both aging parents and unemployed or underemployed children live with the middle generation, putting further strain on their financial well-being. In the U.S., 16 percent of the population lives in three-generation households, and nearly all are headed by boomers.

Many older adults continue to work

According to a Wells Fargo survey, three-fourths of Americans expect to work during traditional retirement years. Of those, 25 percent say they will need to work until at least age 80 before they can afford to retire. According to the EBRI, nearly half of people age 57–63 in 2010 didn’t have enough retirement income to cover basic expenses.

In 2011, 45 percent of retirees left the workforce earlier than planned, often because of health problems or corporate downsizing (EBRI). Of those continuing to work, 47 percent say they do similar work to what they have been doing, while 42 percent say they took a job with less responsibility.

Seven million of those over 65 are still in the labor force, but the average senior job seeker looks for work for more than a year. Some good news for seniors looking for work: "encore careers" serving other seniors are a growing job opportunity. 

What is the good news about a growing older population?

  • Most boomer seniors will not be "frail" and 80 percent will never require "institutional care" (i.e.: nursing homes).
  • Boomers are better educated, better off economically, healthier and much more politically active than any previous generation.
  • Increased longevity has changed the meaning of "chronological age." 65 is the new 45. 75 is the new 55. And 85 is the new 65!
  • According to a study by Bankers Life and Casualty's Center for a Secure Retirement, Kansas City is ranked ninth in the U.S. on the list of Best Cities for Seniors. Factors for the ranking included health care, economy, health and longevity, social, environment, spiritual life, housing, transportation and crime. 
  • Boomers invented technology, and they will demand it to ensure their quality of life as they age. Social networks will connect families.
  • Seniors want to invest their "longevity bonus" productively. They want to remain intellectually engaged. Many want to continue learning and remain active in culture and the arts, civic affairs, environment and science, and many want a fulfilling spiritual life.
  • Boomers who have accumulated wealth have the potential to become successful entrepreneurs in retirement as their "second career."
  • A large study found that people who volunteer regularly are 10 times more likely to be in good health than those who don’t volunteer. Another scientific study reported that people over age 55 who volunteer for two or more organizations were 44 percent less likely to die prematurely than those who didn’t volunteer - a reduction in mortality as impressive as that conferred by exercising four times weekly, or kicking a cigarette habit for good!
  • Seniors who continue to find "purpose" in their lives are healthier and live longer. Aging boomers have been called "America's last remaining natural resource." They find purpose in volunteering and other forms of civic engagement.
Sources: AARP Policy Institute, AARP Foundation, Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Security Administration, Met Life Institute, Kiplinger Retirement Newsletter, e-Links to Aging articles through weekly Senior Newswire, The Eldercare Channel, The Kansas City Star, University of Wisconsin Extension, New York Times, Grantmakers In Aging, Annual Conference Notes, Civic Ventures, Urban Institute.