America Is Aging Quickly And Is Unprepared 

America Is Aging Quickly And Is Unprepared 

The predictions about the aging Baby Boomer population have become a reality, and America is not ready for it—nor are the older adults themselves. The generation born between 1946 and 1964 faces significant challenges such as financial stability, personal health, and housing as they enter their later years.

For decades, health experts and advocates for seniors have been pushing for changes in governmental policies and funding to handle the predicted demographic shift. However, the changes have come too slowly for some seniors who are already experiencing problems that come along with aging.

For instance, a popular trend among seniors is wanting to live independently in their homes for as long as possible. While aging in place may be a goal for older adults, the country is not prepared to meet their housing needs.

Currently, the type of housing that is critical to the quality of life of older adults—affordable, physically accessible, well-located, and coordinated with supports and services—is in short supply, according to a report by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and the AARP Foundation.

The report highlighted several housing-related issues facing today’s older adults:

  • Much of the country’s housing stock lacks basic accessibility features (such as no-step entries, extra-wide doorways, and lever-style door and faucet handles) that prevent seniors with disabilities from living safely and comfortably in their homes.
  • The transportation and pedestrian infrastructure is generally not suitable for seniors who are unable to drive but live in the suburbs and rural areas where vehicles are a necessity. The inability to drive can isolate older adults from their family and friends.
  • Seniors may need more care at home, and without it, many older adults with disabilities or long-term care needs are at risk of premature institutionalization.

Taking immediate steps to address housing-related issues is “vital to our national standard of living,” Chris Herbert, acting managing director of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, said in a news release.

“While it is ultimately up to individuals and their families to plan for future housing needs, it is also incumbent upon policymakers at all levels of government to see that affordable, appropriate housing, as well as supports for long-term aging in the community, are available for older adults across the income spectrum,” Herbert said.

Do Seniors Have the Finances to Care For Themselves?

Many seniors are on fixed incomes and do not have retirement savings. The annual median income of older adults in 2021 was $26,668, according to the Administration for Community Living (ACL), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Men had a higher median income overall: $35,808 compared to $21,245 for women. The ACL also reported that nearly 1 in 10 people age 65 and older (9 percent or 5 million) lived below the poverty level.

Older adults with lower incomes struggle to take care of not only their personal needs but also their housing needs. According to the Harvard/AARP report, high housing costs force one-third of people 50 and over (including 37 percent of people 80 and over) to pay more than 30 percent of their income for homes that may not fit their needs. Paying for housing requires seniors to cut back on food and health care, and for those 50-64, retirement savings, the report said.

What also factors into older adults’ lack of sufficient income is many of them are no longer working. A Pew Research Center analysis found that more than half of U.S. adults 55 and older had retired. Added to that is the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reporting that nearly half of American households headed by someone 55 and older lack some form of retirement savings. The GAO also noted that nearly 30 percent of those who are retired or nearing retirement do not have retirement savings or a defined benefit plan.

Older adults who do not have adequate financial resources will find it harder than those with more resources to pay for daily living expenses as well as for health care.

Federal Spending On Health Care Expected To Climb

Financial experts believe the aging population will significantly impact the federal budget, primarily due to increased spending on Medicare and other health programs. However, the repercussions are projected to go beyond the budget. Unless substantial changes are made to address the issue, working-age adults may opt to leave their jobs to take care of their aging loved ones.

What’s more, adult children may need to become caregivers due to the shortage of healthcare workers, especially in long-term care. There was already a shortage before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the problem has gotten worse.

Experts say the economic effects wouldn’t be as bad if older adults stayed healthy and worked later in life. But things don’t seem to be trending that way.

“There’s always been in the background an assumption that with increasing technical capacity in health care, that the older generation would be healthier than the preceding older generation,” John Rowe, a professor of health policy and aging at Columbia University, told Axios. “What’s becoming clear is that that optimistic scenario may not be playing out, and for whatever reason, older people in the next generation may enter late life more disabled than their previous counterparts.”

There are already signs that people currently in their 40s and 50s will not be as healthy as today’s seniors when they reach retirement age.

“People don’t get to 65 naive, as if they are now going to experience healthy aging or unhealthy aging,” Lisa Berkman, director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, told Axios. “If we want to think about healthy aging in America 10 or 20 years from now…we need to totally focus on the people who will be in those cohorts.”

Despite the dire consequences that experts predict, not all seniors will experience ongoing healthcare challenges. This makes aging more likely to become an even more unequal experience.

“People with resources and money and the best insurance will be able to get care, and as usual, the people without won’t,” Rowe said. “We’re going to end up with a two-tier health system for older persons. And we don’t want that.”

Experts say the current healthcare system operations—as well as other systems involving seniors—have to change for the nation to handle the older adult population and the issues related to them.

Tim Lash, president of the West Health Institute, which is dedicated to improving aging, told Axios that there are “a lot of things” that aren’t structured or ready for the growing demand.

“Addressing it isn’t just more bodies,” Lash added. “Addressing it is fundamentally shifting what we’re doing.”

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