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Graying of Connecticut presents opportunities, challenges

By Judy Benson

Publication: The Day

Published September 30. 2012 4:00AM   Updated September 30. 2012 5:11PM
In state with nation's seventh oldest population, one-third are baby boomers

First the good news: more Connecticut residents are living longer.

Now the not-so-good news: more Connecticut residents are living longer.

Clearly the "bad news" label doesn't fit the rise in longevity, but this demographic phenomenon won't be an easy adjustment. The aging of the state's population will test resources in new ways at every level, from state to local governments to individual households.

"The dramatic increase in the older population due to aging baby boomers is a huge challenge," said Margaret Gerundo-Murkette, acting director of the Aging Services Division of the state Department of Social Services.

According to the state Commission on Aging, the Nutmeg State has the nation's seventh oldest population, and is in 10th place for the number of residents over age 85. The generation of baby boomers - born between 1946 and 1964 - account for one-third of its approximately 3 million residents, setting the state up for a huge increase in the proportion of its population over age 65 in the coming two decades. If current trends hold, the state will see its older population grow by about 64 percent between now and 2030, while the percentage of younger residents declines.

"The fastest growing percentage of our population is people over age 85," Rob Norton, communications director at the Connecticut Commission on Aging, said. "One of the biggest issues is the need for people to plan ahead. It sounds simplistic, but that's the key. About 100 percent of people say they expect to age at home, but they won't be able to if they don't plan ahead with a financial plan."

New London County's over-65 population mirrors the state's, said Russell Melmed, epidemiologist with Ledge Light Health District, which provides health services to Groton, New London, Waterford, Ledyard and East Lyme. The county has 38,995 residents over 65, about 14 percent of the total - but is rising rapidly.

Increasingly, as people reach the age when they're ready to retire and sign up for Medicare, they're staying in their communities rather than moving to Florida or other retirement meccas, Norton said. That presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the towns they call home.

"Housing and transportation are the big issues," he said.

On Nov. 1, the commission is convening a workshop, "Livable Communities for All Ages," for municipal planners, mayors, first selectman and state officials to consider how to adapt their cities and towns for the demographic shift that's ahead. Leaders should consider a wide range of issues in making their communities more accommodating to the aging population, Norton said, including how to provide services to keep more people at home as they age; the importance of sidewalks and other infrastructure; housing; and transportation networks so older people can give up their cars.

Independent transportation networks accept donations of vehicles from seniors who want to live car-free. The organization then sells the cars, and the donor can call for a ride at any time, with the service paid for by their donation.

"We'd like to see more of that," said Norton, adding that the first such network in the state is serving Hartford, Bloomfield and surrounding towns.

Municipal leaders also should view their aging population as a major asset to their communities, a source of volunteers with a base of knowledge and expertise that can be tapped.

"They are a major force in keeping their communities healthy," he said.

One emerging trend that is expected to persist is more people continuing to work full- or part-time beyond the traditional retirement age.

"They're working longer because they want to or they have to," Norton said. "Older people can play a huge role in the state's workforce."

But these workers also come with some unique needs that employers should work to accommodate, he said. Many would like to work more flexible hours or work from home, to avoid stressful commutes during peak traffic hours.

One of the most critical issues both for individuals and the state is preparing for the long-term care needs of the state's elderly population. The state spends $2 billion per year - about 13 percent of the total state budget - on long-term care services through Medicaid, and is trying to curb the growing demand by improving the support systems that help people remain at home rather than moving into nursing homes, Gerundo-Murkette said. It is undertaking several initiatives to achieve that goal, from setting up aging and disability resource centers around the state to enabling seniors to hire relatives or neighbors as caregivers rather than relying on a private agency.

It is also working to keep more people out of nursing homes by promoting healthy living programs, such as one that helps people with diabetes and other chronic conditions better manage their own care, and another that teaches how to prevent falls.

"That means people staying healthier longer, with fewer trips to the doctor and fewer trips to the hospital," she said. "We're trying to look at ways of doing things differently, partnering with the Department of Public Health and local senior centers to try to put a whole system together."

j.benson@theday.com

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If you go

What: "Livable Communities for All Ages"

When: 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Nov. 1

Where: Room 2C, Legislative Office Building, Hartford

Sponsor: Connecticut Commission on Aging

Admission: Free

To register: call (860) 240-5200 or send an email to: coa@cga.ct.gov.

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