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Aging by the numbers

Posted: Sunday, November 04, 2001

Lazzette Ohman stayed in her home state of Alaska because of work, family and friends. Bud Taylor remained after retirement to avoid the pollution and crowds of the Lower 48. Elizabeth Leach moved from the Midwest to be closer to her son after her husband died. Lotus Pasternak's daughter brought her here because she had Alzheimer's disease and needed close care.

The four Juneau residents are among thousands of senior citizens representing Alaska's fastest-growing age group. While the growth in numbers helps preserve institutional knowledge and keeps families together, it is straining the health and social-service programs that care for senior Alaskans.

Since becoming a state in 1959, Alaska's median age has gone from 23 to 32 and the percentage of senior citizens in the population has more than doubled. In the next 20 years, the number of Alaskans 65 and older is expected to triple to more than 92,000, almost 12 percent of a total population of 776,500.

Please visit our Aging Archives to view past stories from this series.

The swift aging of Alaska is attributed to better health care, payments from the state permanent fund dividend and longevity bonus programs, and more people bringing their parents north rather than moving south to care for them.

"What we know is a much higher level of older Alaskans than would even have been true 10 years ago are choosing to retire in the state," said Jane Demmert, executive director of the Alaska Commission on Aging. "Overall we're seeing more people staying here than leaving."

When Demmert first lived in Juneau in the late 1960s, most seniors moved out of state after retirement. Now they don't. About 1,870 senior citizens lived in Juneau in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and they don't plan to leave. Projections put the population at 3,300 in 20 years.

A survey done for the Alaska Commission on Aging in 1998 found 96 percent of the seniors expect to stay here indefinitely.

"There are proportionally more older people than there were then," Demmert said.

Much of the aging is a natural process, part of a national and international trend that has drawn the attention of the United Nations and the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The first of the 75-million-strong American population bulge called the baby boom will turn 65 in 2011, according to the Census Bureau.

"It's just straight demographics. The bulge is starting to reach retirement age and older," said state demographer Greg Williams.

With life expectancy more than 80 years now, people are living more than 25 years longer than those born in 1900. By 2020, about 16 percent of Americans will be elderly and 6.5 million will be over 85 years old.

"We are now at a point where, because of improvements in health-care practices over many years, there's just a larger number of people surviving than would have been true, say, 20 years ago," Demmert said.

Nationwide, 12.5 percent of the population is 65 or older. In some states the percentage is higher still -17.6 percent in Florida. At 5.7 percent, Alaska is far from being considered a retirement state, but it's catching up.

"The senior population in Alaska is the fastest-growing population in the country," said Bob Pigott, director of the National Senior Service Corps. "More seniors are relocating to Alaska."

Some senior citizens are moving north to be near children and grandchildren. More and more Alaskans also are choosing to stay when they retire. Those who stay don't mind the weather and have strong ties to the community. Better roads and services make it easier for them to manage the cold, wet and dark days.

"In our state winter certainly challenges us, but we have a number of benefits that certainly help older Alaskans," Demmert said. "There's an interplay of those factors and, of course, as more older people have chosen to stay here it makes it more attractive for others to stay."

With better health care in the state, seniors no longer need to move south as their bodies and minds age. In 2000, agencies partially funded by the Alaska Commission on Aging coordinated care for 1,229 people. Almost half of those elderly, 47 percent, lived in rural areas "which means without that care coordination they would have had to move to a more urban area or out of state," said Mark Zeiger, a publication specialist for the commission on aging.

The few who plan to leave said the cost of living, especially housing, is just too high. Tax breaks, the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend and the monthly Longevity Bonus Program checks sent by the state all help those on fixed incomes, Demmert said. The annual PFDs now come close to $2,000 and the longevity bonus gives monthly payments of up to $250 to many residents who turned 65 before 1997.

But the bonus and PFD usually don't add up to enough to cover the higher cost of living.

"I just don't see that as much of a factor," said state demographer Williams.

Juneau and the state as a whole have many other challenges caring and preparing for a growing senior population. More senior housing is needed, particularly assisted-living housing where seniors can get help with the tasks of daily life without going into a full-service nursing home.

"Then a person doesn't have to spend all their energy just surviving," Demmert said. "They can really apply the energy that they have to activities that are perhaps more fulfilling."

Seniors also need to be able to get places safely. In the winter, many have difficulty navigating icy sidewalks, Demmert said.

The recent increase in Juneau's bus service helps, although extending every-half-hour runs into the night would help even more, said Joe Sonneman, president of the local chapter of AARP, an organization of people 50 and older.

While Southeast Senior Service's Care-A-Van shuttle buses carry older residents to stores and doctors' offices, it is also a limited service, Demmert said.

"If you want to go out and just remain socially active, that is, of course, a lower priority," Demmert said.

As the community faces increased needs for services, it also benefits from its older residents, who are the backbone of many volunteer organizations.

"It's not only volunteering time, people and services," Demmert said, "but often, of course, you have people with very in-depth backgrounds in terms of different professional fields who then are able to share that expertise and perspective."

"As there have come to be more people remaining here, it just adds a dimension and quality to our life here that makes it more complete."

Kristan Hutchison can be reached at stansabbatini@yahoo.com.



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