by Ben Swenson
It’s a weekday afternoon and The Lounge at the James City County Recreation Center is bustling. A gregarious group of a dozen retirees is enjoying a game of Bunco, and the buzz of laughter and chitchat, rolling dice and ringing bells fills the space, which is designed as a place for older residents to connect and have fun.
Games like these may soon get a lot more company. The population of Virginians age 65 and older is expected to nearly double between 2010 and 2030, when almost one in five Virginians will be senior citizens, according to statistics from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
The shifting demographics of Virginia’s population requires policymakers, aging citizens, and their families and neighbors to address the special needs that will accompany this gray wave.
The swell in the number of older Virginians is attributed to the baby boomers, the generation born between 1946 and 1964. Birth rates in that 18-year period skyrocketed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, then slumped, creating a bulge in the population that has been slowly moving through the arc of a human life span.
The year 2030 is an important milestone because that’s when every living baby boomer will be 65 or older. About 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day.
On the bright side, that means people are living longer, says Robert Palmer, director of the Glennan Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology at Eastern Virginia Medical School. Baby boomers have generally been attentive to nutrition, personal health and lifestyle choices.
But longer life spans come with concerns, too, he notes. “Unfortunately, as we age we accumulate more chronic medical conditions and we need more healthcare services to maintain our cognitive and physical functioning,” he says.
The need to have medical professionals trained in geriatric treatment is urgent. Older patients encounter specific medical issues that rarely occur in younger people, and without specific training in identifying these problems, solutions can be elusive.
The prognosis is not good. According to the American Geriatrics Society, by 2025 the nation will need more than five times as many geriatricians than will be practicing, and that’s to say nothing of support staff such as nurses, social workers, and attendants at elder-care facilities.
But institutionalization is not a preferred or cost-effective solution, Palmer says. When he speaks to community gatherings about aging, he often starts by posing a question: “How many of you want to spend your remaining days in a nursing home?” No one ever raises a hand.
Older adults, he says, want to age in place. That may be a matter of preference, but it’s public policy, too; it’s far cheaper to remain at home, both for individuals who pay large costs out of pocket and those whose care is mostly subsidized by the government.
As more baby boomers turn 65, paying for their entitlements will be a perpetual problem. A report released in April by the trustees of Social Security and Medicare projected that – absent major congressional overhaul – the trust funds for the programs will be so strained by 2035 that full benefit payout can’t be assured.
“We want seniors to be as independent and autonomous as possible so they can take care of themselves as long as possible,” Palmer says. Continued autonomy means that Virginians and their communities need to have important conversations about elderly neighbors.
One priority is access to reliable transportation, which allows people with limited mobility to take care of necessities such as groceries and healthcare. “We know from research that when people have access to high quality healthcare, they live longer” and can more readily care for themselves, Palmer says.
But it’s not just day-to-day necessities that the growing number of aging Virginians will require in the coming years. It’s a voice, too.
Leslie Bowie, a Gloucester County resident, provided long-term care for her mother, who suffered from dementia and was legally blind in her final years. Before her mother died last year, Bowie had begun participating in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, an annual fundraiser sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association. She remains passionate about the cause, and will take part in the walk in Williamsburg in October.
Advocacy, she says, serves a few vital functions. First, it helps inform the wider public about the need to address issues that will face more Virginians as the population ages. Some 5.8 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, a number that will more than double by 2050, thanks to the ballooning elderly population.
What’s more, says Bowie, advocacy informs caregivers, who are often the adult children of aging parents. She says the knowledge she gleaned from working so closely with other caregivers helped her make better choices.
There is also payback in advocacy for the participants themselves, she says: “There is tremendous support for individuals and families who are going through this journey just by becoming involved. When the days look really dark, there is somebody out there you can talk to about it.”
Bowie says she feels prepared to navigate the challenges of old age because of her close involvement in her mother’s care and with the Alzheimer’s Association. She and her husband are so-called “elder orphans” because they don’t have children to help care for them, but she feels she’s being proactive with their legal and long-term care planning.
Self-advocacy by individuals and families will be vital as baby boomers age, says Thelma Watson, executive director for Senior Connections, The Capital Area Agency on Aging. But close government and organizational involvement directly in seniors’ areas of need will be critical as well, she says.
Senior Connections is one of Virginia’s 25 Area Agencies on Aging, which are nonprofit bodies that offer a range of services for elderly citizens in a defined region. Charles City County, which is within Senior Connections’ jurisdiction, is one of a small number of Virginia localities that already have a senior population exceeding one in five residents. Some of that county’s successes should be replicated elsewhere, Watson says.
In Charles City, the county administrator and the Department of Parks and Recreation are already heavily involved in giving residents opportunities to ease the burdens of aging. The county sponsors workshops to help older residents and caregivers tackle tricky topics, such as elder law and help with personal care. The county has partnered with a nearby agency, Bay Aging, to provide transportation for Charles City’s older residents.
In 20 locations throughout its district, Senior Connections has sponsored Friendship Cafes, which offer a venue for seniors to socialize with one another. Maintaining such social networks will be vital as baby boomers age, because engagement with the community is just as important as optimizing personal health and making one’s wishes known before that becomes difficult.
And for boomers, the social calendar looks good. Amy Fiedor is the program coordinator for The Lounge in James City County, which serves individuals from the county as well as Williamsburg, both of which have a high proportion of residents over 65. Fiedor is encouraged by the changes baby boomers are bringing to retirement. She used to plan more sedentary activities, such as dinner theater, for the generation before boomers, she says, but recent retirees want more activity, such as nature hikes.
Active engagement is crucial as people age. The act of thinking about game play or the steps in line dancing – two activities popular with regulars at The Lounge – helps to stave off some of the cognitive decline that accompanies aging, Fiedor says.
Boomers know this and are, by and large, being as active as they can get away with, she says. “I love it when I tell people about the activities we have coming up and they have to check their calendar because they might already be booked,” she says. “That, to me, is successful aging.”