America is aging rapidly. Our policies need to keep pace | Ray E. Landis

In many ways, Pa. is a laboratory for what the rest of the country is beginning to experience as its population ages

October 21, 2021 6:30 am

Last week the nightly news breathlessly focused on a billionaire’s effort to send a 90-year-old actor to an altitude where he could escape our planet’s atmosphere and experience weightlessness. Meanwhile back on earth, the issues impacting others of William Shatner’s age remained out of the general public’s eye.

The vast majority of older Americans are focused on more day-to-day issues than experiencing the Final Frontier of (sort of) space. The implications of these concerns are growing as the demographics of Pennsylvania and the rest of the United States change.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Administration on Aging publishes a periodic profile of older Americans.

The latest report was issued earlier this year and contains many fascinating statistics. One that stands out is the percentage of Americans 65 and older is expected to rise from 16% in 2019 to 21% in 2040.

If percentages are not your thing, consider the actual numbers – there are approximately 54 million Americans 65 and older today. That number is projected to be over 80 million in 2040.

The report also details where issues facing older Americans are the most pressing. The raw numbers show the states with the biggest populations have the largest number of those 65 and older.

But percentages are more revealing in this case. Three smaller mostly rural states, Maine, Vermont, and West Virginia, join Florida as the states with more than 20% of their populations over the age of 65.

Three more low population states, Montana, Delaware, and Hawaii, have older populations between 18.9% and 19.4%. Pennsylvania follows, with 18.7 of its population 65-plus.

The high rank of so many mostly rural states on this list reflects a pattern of internal migration in the United States where younger people are moving to more urban areas, leaving many small towns and isolated areas with a high proportion of older people. Florida is the exception, of course, as wealthier seniors flock there because of the weather and tax incentives (not necessarily in that order).

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Pennsylvania is next on the list. But Pennsylvania’s older population is not evenly distributed. The more rural northern and western parts of Pennsylvania have higher percentages of older people, while Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs, the faster-growing parts of the state, do not have as rapid a growth in their 65+ population. Pennsylvania even has a bit of the Florida phenomenon, as parts of the Poconos and south- central PA have had influxes of out-of-state retirees relocate there (not for the sand and surf, of course, but because the Commonwealth does not tax pension income).

In many ways, Pennsylvania is a laboratory for what the rest of the country is beginning to experience as its population ages.

Western Pennsylvania in particular, provides unique insights because of its rural nature outside of Pittsburgh, the demise of the steel and coal industries, and the rejuvenation of Pittsburgh as a technology and health care center and destination for internal migration. It can provide an indication of where the United States as a country may be headed in dealing with an aging population.

The work of Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh  gives us greater insight into this situation. The Age-Friendly movement there is now in its sixth year, and is focused on how the region needs to adapt to an older population.

Their most recent effort involved a survey of more than 1600 residents of Allegheny County aged 45 and older conducted early in 2021. The Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh leadership recently shared some of the initial results of the survey.

Key findings include the majority of older adults (64%) expressing a desire (or need) to continue to work, most older adults (87%) continuing to drive, a technology gap existing between older and younger people (only 29% of those 65 and older feel they have excellent or very good technology skills), and the presence of a significant racial gap in the view of whether their community is good for people as they age (66% of whites said their community was excellent or very good, while only 39% of blacks felt the same way).

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These issues – employment, mobility, technology, and disparities – are at the heart of the challenges our changing demographics present. It is going to require an investment in the infrastructure of communities across the country to address them, an investment that the proposals being considered in Washington, DC right now must acknowledge.

To those who say we as a nation do not have the resources to undertake such an investment, I would point to the recent adventures of the former commander of television’s Starship Enterprise. A private sector that can afford such an extravaganza can afford a tax structure to address the demographic change we are now facing.

We must boldly say the resources used to send this one man on the trip of a lifetime could be better spent improving the lives of countless others-and we must boldly enact policies at the federal and state levels to make this a reality.

Opinion contributor Ray E. Landis writes about the issues important to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him at @RELandis.

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Ray Landis
Ray Landis

A former spokesman for the Pennsylvania AARP, Ray E. Landis writes about the issues that matter to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star's Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.