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Colgan: Maine's Aging Population Threatens Economic Vitality
09/10/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Maine's population isn't getting any younger. In fact, the balance of young versus old is expected to tip in the next few years. Soon, Mainers over age 60 will outnumber those in their 20s to mid-30s. Many say the demographic flip is a looming crisis that has implications for Maine's economy. To address the challenge, Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves held the first in a series of discussions with stakeholders today in Augusta. Patty Wight reports.

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Aging population conference

Here are the facts facing Maine: It is the most rural state in the country. It has the oldest population, the lowest influx of young people from other states, and the second-lowest population aged 0-18. All of this translates into big problems for the state, says Muskie School of Public Service Economist Charlie Colgan.

"When you look at the next 20 to 30 years in Maine, there really is - no society has ever gone through what we're about to go through," Colgan said.

Colgan was the featured speaker at the meeting (above) in Augusta. He says the crux of the problem facing Maine is this: By the end of the decade, those over age 65 will outnumber people aged 20 to 34 and below. That age bracket - 20 to 34 - is important, because that's the age people enter the workforce and replace those who are retiring.

Colgan said if Maine's young working population shrinks, so too will the economy. "Basically, what happens is we wind up losing between 10,000 and 20,000 jobs, relative to what we could have been over the next 30 years."

That's the long-term view, but some of that workforce loss is happening now, says the executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging, Jessica Maurer.

"We have about 200,000 people in Maine who are what's called 'informal caregivers', and a fair percentage of them - somewhere between 25 and 45 percent of informal caregivers - are still employed full time or part time in our workforce, and they are leaving the workforce in droves to take care of their aging relatives," Maurer says. "So we don't have enough workers to begin with, and a large percentage of our workers are leaving the workforce because they're care-giving."

So, what's a state like Maine to do? Charlie Colgan says Maine must lure a young workforce with economic opportunity. The state also needs to transform its housing market, he says, so older residents can access services. Jessica Maurer says building aging-friendly communities would have multiple benefits.

"If we build it right now to deal with this crisis for our older folks, but we build it in a way that really supports aging across the continuum, then we're going to be able to attract new people to Maine," she says.

Charlie Colgan says Maine also needs to tap into the economic opportunity of its aging population. He suggests the state can be a leader in research and development by marrying technology to the service needs of an aging population.

University of Maine provost Jeff Hacker sees another opportunity in the older population: to harness their brain power as enrollment of traditional students declines. "So to start thinking about - more than we have in the past - non-traditional-aged people. What are their educational needs, and how can we increase accessibility for them?"

In the past, when Maine tackled the challenge of its aging adults, the focus was on long-term care. Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves says the approach has to be much broader now, to address the impact across the state in different sectors.

Eves will host three more meetings this fall, and says by the end, he hopes to have solid policy recommendations in hand for the next legislative session.

Photo:  Patty Wight


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