I’m not a gerontologist. But I am a researcher. Once in a while people in my line of work come across a number that makes us tilt forward in our chairs and re-run the calculations just to make sure. That’s high drama for a sociologist.
This happened to me most recently when reviewing some data on disabilities for the Twin Cities Compass project. I suspected that older adults were more likely to be disabled, but do you know what the disability rate is for people 75 or older? 53 percent! Right here in the seven-county region!
How about for people age 85 and older? 74 percent! We are defining “disability” pretty broadly here, including everything from mental-health problems to difficulty lifting, carrying, and climbing stairs. But still!
Those rates on their own are eye-popping. But when I was reading them I also had in my mind a statement I’ve probably made 100 times over the past couple of years “… the number of people age 65 and older in the Twin Cities will double over the next 20 years.” That’s the “silver tsunami” that is just now starting to come ashore as the baby boomers reach retirement age.
Thought of happier fates
Maybe the rise in disabilities is what everyone else thinks of when they think of baby boomers retiring. But prior to a few days ago it mainly made me think of happier things, like the volunteering trips my retired parents have made to help people on the Gulf Coast. Or the baby-sitting help my retired in-laws so graciously provide.
Now I think about the disability-by-age curve.
If the retirement-age population is rising, and if older adults are more likely to be disabled — very likely, as it turns out — then the change coming to our region in terms of disabilities is noteworthy indeed. Right now the number of people who have disabilities in the seven-county region is nearly 300,000. Fast forward to 2030 and that number could grow to 430,000 or better. That’s like starting with St. Paul and Mendota Heights, and adding Eagan, Shakopee and Richfield.
These sorts of numbers have all sorts of implications. For example, older adults are very dependable voters. Will the Woodstock generation who grew up to become investment bankers make yet another conversion in their later years? Will the current “no new tax” crowd become the “soak the workers” crowd when they find themselves in need of more support?
A changing dependency ratio
I am a Gen-Xer, and such a prospect makes me wary. Part of the silver tsunami is a dramatically changing old-age dependency ratio. Currently there are six working-age people in our region for every one retiree. In 2030 there will be only three working-age people for every one retiree. The fact that the one retiree whom I and two others will be figuratively supporting 20 years from now will more likely than not have some sort of disability means that the support we provide could be very expensive.
The sooner we start preparing for the tsunami, the better off we’ll be.
Current statistics do not equal destiny. And I am well aware that many older adults lead healthy, engaged and productive lives. I’ve seen more than I care to remember run right past me in marathons I have run over the years. I do, however, hope we are doing enough more broadly as a society to prepare.
Well, developing ever better support and care systems. Innovating more flexible post retirement-age employment opportunities. Enhancing transportation accessibility. Building the infrastructure to engage a coming army of potential volunteers (which would be beneficial to both the community and the volunteers themselves). Some of this work is already being done, through the work of the Vital Aging Network, among others, but I would bet that those involved would agree that they could use more support.
With some luck I’ll be able to benefit from all of this preparation when I retire, sometime (I hope) before I turn 70 in 2040. Then it will be my turn to baby-sit the grandkids, spend more time volunteering — and maybe even learn how to stay healthy and active despite a disability of my own. Now that really packs a punch.
Craig Helmstetter is a consulting scientist at Wilder Research in St. Paul.