By Sandy Alexander
WASHINGTON – Elizabeth Boehner, director of the Montgomery County Area Agency on Aging, recalls how members of her grandparents’ generation often expected to spend their final years in what her aunt called “the old age home.”
But her parents, both 81, are active, healthy and adamant about staying in their Silver Spring home for the rest of their lives. And Boehner expects another 10 to 15 years will “put the boomer generation in a completely different situation than the elderly today.”
Americans are going to have to rethink what it means to be old, said Jim Macgill, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Aging, as many people in their 60s and 70s are more active and healthy than in past decades due to their lifestyles and medical advances.
Those changes are driving a boom in the state’s senior population that is likely to increase the traditional challenges in housing, transportation and health issues that accompany aging, while bringing a new set of issues over the next 20 years.
But many experts agree with Macgill that Maryland residents can “do more than just muddle through.”
The Maryland Office of Planning is predicting a significant growth in the state’s elderly population over the next decades, with residents aged 65 and older expected to grow from 11.2 percent of the population now to 16.4 percent in 2020.
A number of issues are already arising.
In a 1998 survey of its members, the national aging issues group AARP found that 50 percent of those aged 60 to 74 cited the ability to stay in their own home as a top concern.
Only around 4.2 percent of people 65 and older are in nursing homes now, said AARP spokesman Tom Otwell, although that percentage increases to around 20 percent of those age 85 and older. Most people who are elderly today want to age in place, he said.
In-home aides can help people stay at home by assisting them with daily activities, Macgill said, although aides are more difficult to find in a booming economy because of competition from plentiful, and less stressful, jobs.
He said there are ways to modify homes to be more senior-friendly. Seniors can also hire helpers for chores around the house or, in the case of cooking, turn to nonprofit groups like “meals on wheels.”
The federal Administration on Aging says that 95 percent of those older Americans who get help have family and friends involved in their care. A 1994 administration survey found there are more than 7 million informal caregivers across the country and half of all caregivers are elderly themselves.
The administration reported that caregiving can be emotionally draining, leading to higher rates of depression among caregivers than the general public, and in many cases requiring interruptions of work schedules. Caregivers today also must deal with increased geographic separation, the agency said.
But if living at home is not possible, people have a lot more options today than they did 20 years ago, said Macgill.
Retirement communities offer private apartments with amenities geared to aging adults, he said, while assisted-living facilities let people remain in a residential setting by helping them with daily activities.
Access to health care is also an issue for aging Americans, as many seniors have come to rely increasingly on pharmaceuticals, said Macgill.
The AARP’s Otwell said health care costs can add up pretty quickly on a fixed income: Americans 65 and older pay an average of 19 percent of their income on out-of-pocket health care costs, including prescription medications, which are not covered by Medicare.
Macgill said prescription medicine is “great stuff, but it can’t be just for the wealthy.”
He also said transportation “is an issue the state is just beginning to grapple with.”
While suburban living has weaned people away from public transportation, they tend to need it later in life, Macgill said, as individuals have more problems driving around age 75. He said the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration is looking into options for mature drivers, including driver training to help keep seniors safely on the road longer.
In addition to those issues, tomorrow’s healthier, busier seniors may need new types of services.
The next generation of senior citizens may spend more years in retirement than working, said Jill Grigsby, a professor of sociology at Pomona College in California, who studies aging issues.
“Older people are in better shape than in the past,” Grigsby said, creating a greater need for clubs and activities at senior centers and expanding the market for leisure activities, such as travel, aimed at older people.
Access to computers can be perfect for older people who want access to the world but are less inclined to leave their homes, she said.
New work opportunities may arise as older individuals help fill labor shortages caused by a healthy economy, said Michael Reinemer, spokesman for the national Council on the Aging. Seniors may also be able to offer their expertise to the community through activities such as tutoring and assisting individuals with disabilities.
Reinemer said he prefers to look at the growing number of seniors “as an asset rather than a problem or a challenge.”
But, in order to be an asset, Americans need to take their longer, more active senior years into consideration when they plan their finances, health care and long-term care, Reinemer said. “Americans as a whole are probably underprepared, and families don’t do a particularly good job of talking about the issue,” he said.
“There are a lot of challenges,” Macgill said, but he believes Maryland residents are good at solving “engineering problems” and will find better ways to help elderly citizens.
Boehner, 51, said her generation “is going to be totally different,” from the one before.
The situation for seniors is not bad now, she said, but in the coming decade, “It’s going to be much, much better.”