Aging population expected to double, present policy challenges

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the population of seniors will double by 2050. McHenry County Valley Hi Nursing Home residents, including Mary Jane Gibson (center), play bingo Friday in Woodstock.
The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the population of seniors will double by 2050. McHenry County Valley Hi Nursing Home residents, including Mary Jane Gibson (center), play bingo Friday in Woodstock.

The face of the United States is becoming more racially and religiously diverse – and it's also going to get a lot older in the coming decades.

The U.S. Census Bureau projected in dual reports released earlier this month that the population of citizens age 65 and older will double over the next 35 years, from 43 million in 2012 to 83.7 million by 2050. If current trends continue, the demographic shift will mean that slightly more than 20 percent of the projected 400 million Americans will be seniors, compared to about 13 percent now. The senior population will be roughly the same size as the population of children 18 years and younger, according to the report.

This is going to mean significant changes for the nation as a whole in many areas, the reports conclude.

"The projected growth of the older population in the United States will present challenges to policy makers and programs, such as Social Security and Medicare. It will also affect families, businesses and health care providers," the report summary states.

Leaders of local agencies that work with seniors and senior issues agree that the changes will be numerous, profound, and something that needs to start being considered now.

One emphasis that needs to be made is on staying healthy, said Bette Schoenholtz, executive director of Senior Service Associates Inc., a nonprofit that serves 28,000 seniors at five centers in McHenry, Kane and Kendall counties.

"As the population grows, it's living longer, and as a consequence, you'll have a lot more frail seniors, and you'll have a lot of health issues. There's going to have to be a big emphasis on healthy aging," Schoenholtz said.

Data back up Schoenholtz's concern. The Census report projects average life expectancy to increase from the upper 70s today to the mid-80s by 2050, varying by race and gender. It will be highest for white and Hispanic women at 86.2 years, and lowest for African- and Native American males at 79 years.

Another health issue that needs to be addressed is providing adequate resources to combat mental health issues such as Alzheimer's disease and the increasing likelihood with age that people will be diagnosed with dementia, said Tom Annarella, administrator of the county-run Valley Hi Nursing Home west of Woodstock.

Resources, of course, means money. And the growing senior population today will take a much larger bite out of mandatory federal spending, not counting the uncertainties of the ongoing implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

"Social Security, when it was designed, was not supposed to be for long periods of time, because life expectancy wasn't that long," Annarella said. "It's going to cause further strain on Social Security and Medicaid. So for people like us, the question is, will Social Security be there? We've paid in, but will we be able to take it out?"

The ratio of senior citizens to Americans of working age will decrease, according to projections. The ratio as of 2012 was just under four working-age Americans for every senior citizen. The ratio is expected to shrink to three to one in the next 15 years.

A significant chunk of the growth of the senior population is the aging of the baby boomer generation, which the government identifies as people born between mid-1946 and mid-1964. The oldest boomers turned age 65 in 2011 and the younger ones will be age 85 and older by 2050.

Some of the growing senior population's needs are going to be met by the senior care industry that has grown with it.

A 2011 survey of county businesses identified the health care and social assistance sector – which includes retirement communities, assisted living facilities and health care services – as one of the largest in the U.S. with more than 819,000 establishments. The number of employees at these facilities increase 20 percent over the last five years of the report.

Like many other experts, Schoenholtz predicts that the retirement age will increase out of necessity, which would reinforce her point about seniors needing to take steps to stay healthier longer. For example. Illinois government's steps in recent years to rein in its ballooning pension costs have pegged the retirement age for new employees at 67.

As for major changes to Social Security, the likelihood is uncertain, given that senior citizens make up the nation's largest and most reliable voting bloc.

"My expectation is that they will probably have to extend the retirement age and, as a consequence, people are going to have to work a lot longer before they get Social Security," Schoenholtz said.

Complicating the expense side of the issue is whether young people today take the steps necessary to plan for having enough money in retirement.

"The baby boomers are going to retire with money. It's the generations after that," Annarella said. "A lot of people eventually end up on some form of assistance."

While the U.S. population will be older by 2050, it will remain one of the youngest among the world's present developed countries, according to Census statistics. While 20 percent of the U.S. population will be senior citizens in 2050, that percentage leaps to one-third for Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain, and 40 percent in Japan, which presently has the largest population of seniors among developed nations.


By the numbers

43 million – the number of senior citizens living in the U.S. in 2012.

83.7 million – the projected senior citizen population in 2050.

400 million – the projected total U.S. population in 2050.

21 percent – of Americans will be 65 and older in 2050, outnumbering those 18 and younger.

SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau

On the Net

You can read the U.S. Census Bureau's reports on the expected increase of the senior citizen population at http://shawurl.com/16o7.


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