Future Welfare of Delaware Seniors Questioned as Population Surges

As I grapple with my own issues of aging, I wonder who will care for Delaware’s rapidly growing senior population.  These concerns are based on a demographic wave that will sweep across our state and nation in the not-too-distant future.

According to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, there are about 45 million Americans who are 65 or older.  By 2020, that number is expected to grow by an additional 11 million.  A decade after that, it is anticipated that senior citizens will comprise more than 20 percent (72.8 million) of the nation’s population.  Just three years later, in 2033, the bureau projects that, for the first time, the nation’s population of senior citizens will outnumber those under the age of 18.

fe6a0315-e20f-499a-bf57-ecb34b646ff2The so-called “graying of America” is driven by demographics, as well as better medical treatment and an expansion of its availability.  Consider that in 1972, someone in this country who had reached the age of 65 could expect to live 15.2 additional years.  The Census Bureau says by 2010, the life expectancy for someone celebrating their 65th birthday had grown to 19.1 years.

Delaware is likely to outpace the nation in the growth of its geriatric population.  In fact, we already have a significantly larger proportion of residents over the age of 64 (16.4 percent) than the nation as a whole (14.5 percent).

According to estimates released last month by the Delaware Population Consortium, the number of seniors will rise from just over 153,000 today to more than 251,000 in 20 years.  By 2035, seniors will constitute about a quarter (almost 24 percent) of all Delawareans.

While this dramatic shift is not exactly a demographic tsunami, it certainly will mean significant changes over a relatively short period.  More access to medical services will be needed — one of the factors undoubtedly driving the creation of the new $250 million, 150-acre Bayhealth medical campus near Milford.

Additional people will be needed to staff services designed to keep seniors living in their homes, including nurses, physical therapists, and aides to carry out routine chores and errands.

Nursing homes and assisted living centers will need to be expanded.  A recent report from the U.S. Department of Health and Social Service Administration on Aging showed that those seniors living to 85 and beyond are, not surprisingly, at much higher risk of requiring nursing home care.  Currently, about two percent of Delawareans are at least 85 years-old.  Two decades from now, 3.21 percent of seniors, or 33,429 people, will be in this cohort — a 57 percent increase from today.

Medicaid costs, already a large driver of budget growth and accounting for more than $700 million in annual state spending, are likely to continue expanding to address seniors’ need for medical care.

At the same time, Delaware’s favorable tax environment for seniors continues to attract more.  The financial publication Kiplinger recently cited Delaware as the sixth most tax-friendly state for retirees, noting The First State’s lack of a sales tax, comparatively low property taxes, and a favorable income tax on pension income.

Gov. Jack Markell referenced Delaware’s shifting demographics and senior tax laws last January when he proposed cutting in half a state subsidy that pays a significant portion of seniors’ school property taxes.  The proposal failed to gain traction, but this and other senior tax issues are likely to draw more attention in the future.

Businesses catering to senior needs and tastes are likely to grow, while those targeting children, teens, and young adults will have fewer opportunities.  Think more demand for Williams-Sonoma and not as much for Chuck E. Cheese.

In short, Delaware is going to face changes — some jarring, some less so.  Some of these will come about gradually through the natural evolution of the marketplace.  Other actions will be in the form of legislation and regulation.

As we move forward into this uncertain future, I think there is value in gathering all of the state and private agencies and organizations serving seniors in a forum where they can share information, opinions, observations, and challenges.  Taking a strategic, holistic approach to assessing this dynamic environment will help us deal with what lays ahead and provide the best quality of life for all our citizens.

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