By Mary Lazare, Vice President of Home and Community Based Services, Lutheran Senior Services
Where We Stand Preview blog posts represent the opinion of the author and do not represent the view of East-West Gateway of Governments. This post is part of the Where We Stand 7th Edition Preview Blog Series. View other posts in the series here.Compared to our peer MSA’s, St. Louis stands out as having a significant older adult population, including older adults with disabilities and those living alone. The older adult population (65 and over) represents 14.4 percent of our total population. That percentage equates to over 404,000 people, and 113,000 of these seniors are living alone. St. Louis ranks 13th out of our peer regions for older adults living alone. One might think this does not have any significance on our region, however when there is such a significant percentage of older adults in a region compared to the rest of the population, there are indeed significant challenges and opportunities to address. In both these categories, St. Louis ranks higher than the national averages, which adds impetus to the timeline for addressing this phenomenon.
From an economic viewpoint, the large percentage of older adults represents a growing number of people who will retire and fewer people paying income taxes, and if a significant number are not well prepared for retirement, there is the potential for additional burdens on welfare and community resources. The reduction in revenue may put an increased tax burden on the younger population in order to compensate and support infrastructure needs such as government, transportation, education, and health care services. Higher taxes are a disincentive for businesses to invest in this region and an incentive for those with very low salaries not to work and tend to rely on welfare.
St. Louis is at risk of experiencing additional impact with the high percentage of our older population who live alone. Older adults are at risk of developing chronic illnesses, particularly those living alone who are socially isolated. The lack of activity and socialization significantly adds to the onset of depression which results in the onset of other chronic conditions. These health needs place a tremendous burden on the economy of a region which must address increasing acute, long term care and community based health services. Thus, the needs of a growing sector of the population place workforce requirements on the smaller shrinking segment of the population.
One might argue that these health care needs create jobs and boost economy for the region and, while they do, there is still the issue of an adequate workforce to sustain these needs and yet not suck workforce resources from other economic sectors that St. Louis wants and needs to address. There will be increasing need for home helpers, adult day care centers, social workers, allied health professionals, and senior care facilities. If workforce resources are directed to this high demand for services, what business sectors are ignored that attract and retain a diverse younger workforce for the future growth of the region? An inadequate workforce tends to drive up wages which is an additional disincentive for businesses to remain or locate here.
The other factor in the region’s older adult population to consider is the percentage of the older adult population with disabilities. In the St. Louis region, there are over 136,000 seniors with disabilities. In all of the peer regions and for the United States as a whole, about a third of the adults 65 and older are living with a disability. The prevalence of disabilities increases the need for health services and a very significant need on accessible transportation services to allow older adults to maintain social contact, access services they require and continue to contribute in the workforce or in volunteer capacities in the region. Medical science has increased the life expectancy of people with disabilities which enhances the need to address these issues. Older adults want to age in their homes, out in the community, and we need to find ways to support that desire. Supporting older adults in their homes also maintains tax revenues that in turn enhance community development. When looking at all three tables of older adult statistics for this region, there is a significant and growing demand on this region for older adult support services. This sets a platform for the region’s opportunity to prepare for this challenge.
The St. Louis region has to address the challenges as opportunities in order to get traction from various sectors within the region. Ageism is not uncommon and often results in steering away from older adult issues. Older adults, however, can serve in key roles in this region by continuing to work, pay taxes, volunteer, and many possess the skill sets and interest in helping to retool and develop the region. A significant number of older adults retire with post-graduate education degrees, significant business expertise and time to contribute their talents to the region. This growing sector of the population could be harnessed to drive positive change rather than be viewed as an economic drain. For example, St. Louis has great potential for technology providers to address the market for goods and services that older adults will want and need. Technology that addresses transportation needs such as driverless vehicles, safety and adaptive equipment that allows adults with and without disabilities to remain in their homes and connected to the outside world could have a high market demand in this region.
The most significant need of older adults living in their homes is transportation services that are safe, accessible and affordable. This creates opportunity for businesses, government, and health care providers to collaborate and develop the infrastructure of the region. Transportation services allow an older skilled and willing workforce to be employed for a longer period of time. Business may also find opportunity to utilize older workers as mentors and coaches to their younger employees. Universities often find opportunity in attracting retirees to their campus for cultural and continuing educational opportunities. The St. Louis region has many nationally acclaimed universities that can capitalize on this strength to provide opportunities for older adults to maintain stimulation, socialization, develop new businesses, and continue interaction with the community. This type of program tends to create a different dynamic in a community and diminishes the prevalence of ageism.
There is opportunity for goods and services that retirees are wanting, such as entertainment, recreational programs, home maintenance services, travel programs, financial services and technology supported living environments (neighborhoods and buildings) that provide both amenities and safe living environments. Many communities have seen an increase in groups of older adults planning and creating their own neighborhoods, developments and areas where they have established a dynamic aging community within a greater community. This phenomenon provides opportunity for builders, developers, architects, and many other businesses to enter this market and create demand in this region. The tables tell us where we stand now – our response to these challenges tells us where we stand in the future.
Those residing in the St. Louis region should give some attention to the work of the St. Louis County Age-Friendly Communities initiative and the development of the Seniors Count initiative. Both of them acknowledge the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. This region is blessed with health care, education and many organizations focused on older adult needs. All of these resources, in addition to government, business, religious and social services are well positioned to support older adult initiatives and create a new, dynamic and vibrant St. Louis region for all generations. A dynamic, healthy community with business opportunity, safety, support services and a change in attitudes toward the growing sector of older adults is part of the equation to a vibrant region.
This text was revised on 5/21/2015 to reflect that the percent of seniors living alone is a percent of total households.