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Aging in Place: Turning a Burden into An Economic Asset
09/20/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

A tidal wave of aging baby boomers will lead to an explosion in the numbers of elderly people in the next few years. In Maine, for example, more than a quarter of the population is expected to be aged 65 or older by 2030. AARP board member Ronald Daly says it's an issue which sometimes keeps him awake at night. Daly, and others involved in the issue, join Maine Things Considered host Tom Porter for a discussion about how to best deal with the aging of the population.

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Aging in Place: Turning a Burden into An Economic Listen
Hear more of the conversation on "aging in place."
Originally Aired: 9/20/2013 5:30 PM

"In the world we live in today in the United States, five percent of our population chews up 45 percent of our healthcare spending," Daly says. And a large proportion of that five percent is made up of the elderly. "And so as that group gets bigger and bigger and chews up more of the healthcare system, it creates a burden on everybody."

Daly joined me in the studio recently, along with Nancy LeaMond, executive vice-president of AARP's State and National Group, and the organization's state director, Lori Parham. They were all in Portland this week for a round-table discussion featuring legislators, economists and community leaders, organized in conjunction with Governing magazine. "".

Called "Aging in Place," the forum looked at how to set up "age-friendly communities," also known as "livable communities." It's an issue also on the mind of Maine lawmakers, who recently launched their own series of discussions aimed at drawing up a list of policy recommendations regarding the state's aging population.

With a median age of 43, Maine is the oldest state in the nation on a per capita basis, and as such, says Daly, is regarded as a petri dish - a testing ground for how to cope with a rapidly-aging population. The key thing, he says, is to try and ensure that more senior citizens are an asset to the community rather than a burden.

And enabling them to grow old at home is a start. "If you look at statistics around the country, it costs abount $82,000 a year to keep a person in a nursing home. But if they were able to stay in their home, it's probably as low as $30,000," he says. "So there's an economic benefit to keeping seniors in their homes."

And as state director Lori Parham points out, stay-at-home seniors also contribute more to the local economy than they would if they were institutionalized.

"If folks are aging in place, it's good for the economy, it's good for local business," Parham says. "People are shopping. In the case of my grandmother, they're getting their hair done once a week. They're out, they're engaged in the community and they're spending money.

So what exactly is meant by a livable community? What are the traits of an age-friendly town? Nancy LeaMond explains.

"We look for accessibility, we look for affordable housing, we look for a part of the city where there are services that people can get to easily. Civic engagement is very important, particularly to 50-plus Americans," LeaMond says. "All of these are elements of a livable community."

The hallmark of an age-friendly community, says LeaMond, is that it benefits all the population - not just the older folks. "If you have a street that has a cut-out that somebody can walk on, it's going to be good for an older person, and it's going to be good for a mother and child in a stroller."

How to achieve this is of course the big question. In Maine, for example, Portland rates fairly well as a livable community - with pedestrian trails, bike paths and public transportation. But in Maine's more isolated rural communities, being elderly can be more challenging.

More support is also needed for caregivers, says Lori Parham, many of whom are unpaid and save the state a lot of money by caring for family members.

"We have to make sure that we invest in these caregivers as well, whether it's work policies that ensure that caregivers can take the time they need," she says. "And we can also invest in programs such as respite, that cost very little in terms of dollars, but give caregivers the break they need so that they can continue to care for aging parents."

Another part of the equation, says Ronald Daly, is keeping seniors in the workforce for longer. "One of the things that I think seniors are starting to recognize is that maybe retirement at 62 and 65 is a very elusive thing," he says. "So my concern is - and I think the AARP's concern is - if they are to work five, ten more years, what is it will they do?

Helping people find new career paths in later life is a challenge, he says. And, indeed, at this stage there are many more questions than answers when it comes to dealing with an aging population. But with huge demographic changes on the way, says Daly, the cost of simply doing nothing is bound to far outweigh the cost of taking action.

Learn more about the concept of "livable communities." 

To hear more of the conversation with Ronald Daly, Nancy LeaMond and Lori Parham, as well as Governing magazine publisher Erin Waters, click the appropriate "Listen" button above.


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