By Andrew Soergel Senior Writer, Economics
Sept. 30, 2019, at 12:22 p.m.
THE AGING U.S. population is perhaps the most seismic demographic shift business leaders, state legislatures and health care providers will face in the next few decades, yet there aren’t many one-size-fits-all options for catering to an increasingly elderly America.
The Census Bureau estimates that, by 2040, the number of adults over the age of 65 in the U.S. will swell more than 60% from 2016, with more than 80 million seniors accounting for nearly a quarter of the country’s total population. By 2035, older adults will outnumber children under the age of 18 across the country.
That aging tide is expected to roll in much sooner in areas such as the rural Midwest – where growth in the younger working-aged population has lagged metropolitan regions largely concentrated along the country’s coasts. It’s also in these rural areas where older adults are less likely to remain in the workforce into their late 60s and 70s, leaving employers strapped for qualified talent to fill the local labor market.
“In Minnesota, we’re right on the cusp right now of our older adult population outnumbering our school-aged population,” says Allison Liuzzi, project director of the Minnesota Compass data hub, which tracks demographic trends in the state. “That has implications for policy and where you put tax money and where your priorities are. We see that coming, and we know it’s already happened in some of the more rural regions of the state.”
Just as two seniors living in the same community can have starkly contrasting retirement plans, savings accounts and health concerns, no two states are dealing with exactly the same priorities as it relates to aging. In some parts of the country, particularly in the Northeast and around major metropolitan areas, seniors are choosing to remain in the workforce later in life.
“Some of it is a straight economics issue. We need people to work in the grocery stores,” says Jess Maurer, executive director of the Maine Council on Aging, suggesting that the older population and rising share of retirees has left the state’s businesses hurting for employees.
Maurer also notes that older adults often require specific types of care workers, transportation options and community engagement opportunities that put additional strain on local labor markets.
“Aging touches every aspect of life, so we end up working in every aspect of life,” she says.
U.S. News put together the Best States for Aging ranking to take a closer look at how states are grappling with the ongoing demographic shift.
The ranking measures states’ efforts to effectively serve their senior citizens by keeping them healthy, financially secure and involved in their communities. States are scored relative to each other in 12 factors that average into one overall score.
The factors are:
- Life expectancy at age 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- The share of adults 65 years old and older reporting at least “good” health, according to the CDC.
- The share of adults 65 years old and older reporting no physical activity during leisure time, according to the CDC.
- The share of adults 65 years old and older reporting frequent mental distress, according to the CDC.
- Unemployment for adults 65 years old and older, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- The share of adults 65 years old and older with a dedicated primary care physician, according to the United Health Foundation.
- The share of adults 65 years old and older that are considered able-bodied, with no cognitive, visual, auditory, ambulatory, self-care or independent living difficulty disability, according to the United Health Foundation.
- Average monthly costs for various assisted living and care options, according to the Genworth Cost of Care study.
- The share of Medicare Advantage enrollees in plans that are rated four stars or better, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid.
- The share of nursing homes designated a “Best Nursing Home” by U.S. News Best Hospitals..
- The share of the state population that is 65 years old or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
- Cost of living, according to the Council for Community and Economic Research.
Maine took the top spot in the rankings, with a concentration of seniors that dwarfs most other states. Nearly 21% of Maine’s population is over age 65, and it maintained the oldest median age in the country last year at 44.9 years. The state also scored well in terms of nursing home quality, enrollment in quality Medicare plans and access to primary care. With the 11th-highest cost of living in the country, however, Maurer said the state is working to cater to seniors on fixed incomes and residents of all socioeconomic standings.
“We’ve identified about 75,000 people in Maine right now who are over the age of 65 who don’t have enough money to meet their basic needs but don’t qualify for any means-tested benefits,” she says, noting that the state has directed volunteer and nonprofit programs such as Habitat for Humanity to support this population’s unplanned expenses. “When we’re looking at housing reform and transportation reform, we’re keenly focused on that population.”
Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado and Hawaii round out the top five in the U.S. News rankings. New England states scored well on the U.S. News metrics, with Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut in the top 10.
Many of these states, however, haven’t seen much growth in their population of young adults, which puts strain on state tax dollars when a smaller pool of residents is of working age and a larger share relies on state assistance programs for older residents. Vermont, in particular, has attempted to court younger workers in recent years, especially as the opioid epidemic takes a toll on its workers between the ages of 25 and 54. The state’s governor signed a bill last year that would pay folks to move to Vermont and work remotely for an out-of-state employer.
But groups in Vermont are also trying to harness the state’s older population to help fill in the workplace gaps – especially considering the state falls into the middle of the pack in terms of senior unemployment, placing 23rd-lowest nationally in the U.S. News rankings.
Associates for Training and Development, a workforce support organization headquartered in Vermont but with offices throughout the Northeast, runs a Senior Community Service Employment program designed to connect qualifying unemployed residents who are at least 55 years of age with a paid internship at local companies.
“People phase into retirement over a long period of time, working less, or differently than they used to. Retirement itself is changing,” says Mary Branagan, the organization’s director of program and partner affairs.
Best States in America for Aging
Between 2010 and 2018, Census Bureau data suggests coastal states, along with Texas, saw some of the largest gains in their senior population – particularly their population of older adults that have opted to remain in the workforce. With the exceptions of Ohio and Michigan, many states in the Midwest lagged behind in the growth of their older populations, including Nebraska and North and South Dakota.
That doesn’t necessarily make these states bad places in which to grow old, however. Minnesota has a smaller concentration of elderly folks than many other areas, ranking 34th for the size of its 65-and-older population. But it finished third in the U.S. News aging rankings and scored well across the board, finishing second in the self-reported health metric, sixth in life expectancy at the age of 65 and 10th in nursing home quality. The state’s overall performance in the U.S. News metrics suggests it is among the best places to grow old in the country.
“I have teenagers living in my house; even having dinner conversations with those teenagers, they need to be interested in this, too. It’s not just about older adults leaving the workforce,” Liuzzi says. “This has implications for all of us in terms of how productive we need to be in the labor market, how innovative will we have to be to fill all of those open positions left by retiring baby boomers.”
Older Minnesotans did, however, report the lowest share of mental distress in the country, measured as a percentage of seniors reporting frequent mental distress to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Liuzzi notes that Minnesota’s engagement and volunteerism rates among seniors comfortably eclipse the national average, with nearly half of the state’s residents reporting that they volunteered within the past year.
That type of engagement, Liuzzi says, is critical to maintaining a healthy older population.
“How do you capitalize on that, when people are no longer working but want to remain active in giving back to their communities?” she says, noting that the state has worked to “keep people engaged as long as they want to be.”