Empire editorial: Aging population brings new challenges to state

Posted: Thursday, November 08, 2001

The good news is we're all likely to live longer than the generations before us. And it's getting easier to spend our later years in Alaska.

The bad news is there may not be enough nurses, doctors, home health-care providers and senior-care facilities to take care of us. And there's going to be a struggle to find the money to pay for whatever assistance we need.

Over the past four days, the Empire has published a series, Aging Alaska, examining some of the impacts of and issues raised by the rapid growth of our older population. More issues and impacts will be examined in future weeks and months as we continue to consider the topic. If you missed part of the series, you can read it on the Internet at juneauempire.com. Access codes are printed on Page 2 of each day's Empire.

There's no question Alaska's senior population is growing by leaps and bounds. While our over-65 population numbered about 11,500 in 1980, it's up to at least 36,6000 today. And in another 20 years, as the post-World War II population bulge called the baby boom reaches retirement, older residents will number about 81,000.

The shift brings bonuses to our state and our community.

Older Alaskans, like their counterparts elsewhere, tend to volunteer a lot. Schools, churches, social-service agencies and other groups make good use of helpers who bring long-practiced skills and a life of experience to their unpaid work.

Seniors and their retirement checks also bring low-impact revenue to businesses and government. When you're not working you don't commute, generate a lot of noise or create much pollution. Few people show up at Planning Commission meetings to protest a few retirees moving into their neighborhood.

And, for those of us with parents or other older relatives in town, it means loved ones closer to home.

But the population change brings some burdens.

Groups that care for the elderly say there's a shortage of affordable places for frail seniors to stay and not enough trained workers to care for them.

Government programs from Social Security to the state-mandated tax exemption for the first $150,000 of senior-owned homes will require more subsidies from younger workers as a larger older population taps into them.

And so many people retiring during the next 20 years will leave a shortage of qualified skilled workers. Studies show that without immigration, our state and nation will not have enough unskilled workers.

A lot of people in government, business and nonprofit groups have been studying of the impacts of an aging population. And they're doing something about it.

In Juneau, St. Ann's Nursing Home turned into Wildflower Court, a facility designed to better serve the needs of a changing senior population. The Juneau Pioneers' Home designed programs for residents with Alzheimer's disease and dementia, increasingly common ailments that bring their own complications. The Bridge Adult Day Program is making plans for a new building serving frail, older residents. Businesses such as Cornerstone Home Health are training more people to provide individualized care so older Alaskans can stay home, often a more comfortable and cheaper option than going into an institution. And groups from the Alaska Commission on Aging to AARP are expanding their efforts to plan for the future.

But no one should be lulled into a false sense of security. With all its benefits, the rapid growth of our older population will mean major changes for the state. As individuals, we all need to plan for our future. As a society, we need to address the needs of an increasingly large part of our population, one we all hope to join.

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