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The Silver Tsunami


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Their soundtrack was rock and roll: The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and The Grateful Dead. They protested war and discrimination, fought for civil and women’s rights, and championed sexual liberation and drug experimentation. They touted Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Robert Kennedy and Rachel Carson as cultural saviors. They made love, not war.

Now—though the feisty generation known as Baby Boomers may deny it—they are getting old.

The Baby Boomers total about 77 million nationwide, and during the next two decades, they will create what is being called the Silver Tsunami, a potentially detrimental flood of older adults. Every day, 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65. According to estimates, 26 percent of Boulder County’s population will be 60 or older by 2030. That means an increased need for mobility options, healthcare information, human services, affordable housing—just to name a few—for older adults. With this Age Wave comes challenges for local organizations and agencies above and beyond simply dealing with increased numbers of older adults, such as making services more attractive to the Baby Boomers and building awareness about said services. Oh, and let’s not forget that people are living longer.

It’s a huge, overwhelming, nearly unfathomable feat to prepare for this slow tsunami to hit. And “prepare” might be an exaggeration. In many ways, local senior service providers don’t necessarily know how they can ready themselves for the Baby Boomers with current funding and staffing.

“We have to be looking ahead,” said Sherry Leach, director of the Boulder County Area Agency on Aging. “The question is: how do we plan for the Baby Boomers while we have a full cohort of seniors we have to provide for right now as well as all the new seniors who need information on the front end?”

How is the question. The answer is still up in the air. What local experts do know is that the community will see a surge in the senior population, that there will be a need for increased services, housing and transportation—and that the Baby Boomers will be a unique force that will change how we think of senior citizens.

“It’s sort of like, forget the stereotype and get ready,” said Susan Unger, travel training coordinator at Via, a local nonprofit that provides mobility options to seniors and adults with disabilities.

The Baby Boomers have garnered a reputation over the decades of being independent, optimistic, socially conscious, politically aware and work-centric. They are the generation of Woodstock. They protested the Vietnam War. They brought us environmentalism, who invented Apple computers, DNA fingerprinting, cell phones and Viagra. Experts expect Boomers to bring the same zest to older adulthood as they did to the rest of their lives.

“The Baby Boomers have made life about them through every stage of life. I think we will find them to be more demanding with what they get and how they get it,” Leach said. “The current crop of older adults, yes, they are individuals. But they say thank you so much. We are so lucky. They’ll say to us, ‘I could take fewer hours of help, so you can help someone else.’ From Boomers, I think we will get a more demanding attitude, for one thing. It has to do with assertiveness.”

Boomers are predicted to revolutionize what it means to be old. One example is the term “senior.” Boomers loathe the word and the idea of it. Senior centers nationwide face a serious problem: Will older Baby Boomers stop by the local senior center for a lap in the pool and a game of pinochle? Or will they instead go to their yoga studio for a class and then grab a glass of wine with their pals? It leaves many believing that the word “senior” will go the way of the “early bird special.”

And that’s just the beginning. Boomer psychology will impact everything from senior housing—such as the design of traditional, clinical nursing homes—to services for lower income seniors.

“Can you see some Baby Boomers going to a congregate meal site?” Leach said warily. “There are people looking at how to do it differently, like a voucher system or a food court. You could use it on healthy options. They wouldn’t have to eat everything on their plates. They can go to lunch or dinner. We will have to think about more venues and ways of delivering services.”

Leach goes on to say that while service providers will likely provide more choice, “in some ways, the basic services won’t change.” People who need a free meal will get a free meal. People who need a ride will get a ride. Still, creating options for seniors is a major trend at Boulder County’s nonprofits, service providers and government agencies. It’s motivated one local organization to completely overhaul their focus.

Earlier this year, Special Transit changed its name to Via and rebranded itself as an organization that specializes in “mobility options” as opposed to just a transit service. Through focus groups and surveys, the staff found that the term “special transit” was unattractive to both aging and disabled populations.

“We have been Special Transit for 32 years or whatever, serving thousands of people, doing all kinds of good things, but we saw our name as a barrier to different populations,” said Mary Cobb, director of communications for Via.

In terms of approaching Baby Boomers as they age, the goal is now to give them the information they need to make the best choice.

“That’s how you empower people. It’s not just telling them what they need, it’s telling them what options they have,” said Lenna Kottke, executive director of Via.

Kottke and the staff expect to see increased riders in 10 to 15 years, when large numbers of residents begin hitting their 80s. They’ve overhauled their building to prepare, and they’ve added vehicles that are more “normal looking,” such as Priuses or SUVs. They’ve talked about adding wifi to vehicles.

“We can give them the same services that their grandmother used, but they are not interested in traveling that way,” Kottke said. “It’s good customer services, and it’s fun too. Evolution is much more fun. We’ve been going through several evolutions, like going to smaller vehicles. We know that many of our riders prefer smaller vehicles. They don’t want a huge bus pulling up in front of their house. This is how most people travel: in vans and Priuses and SUVs.”

Via also found that education will be a big part of tackling the Boomer psyche. One of their big messages is that once you connect with Via, it does not mean that you hang up your car keys. They encourage residents to learn about their mobility options, and if they need a ride one day because of weather, a medical procedure or they desire to be a passenger, give them a call. They also know that Boomers are more likely to drive longer than current generations, and that’s OK.

“We are realizing that not everyone will need a wheelchair-equipped vehicle that comes to their door, but they may have some mobility challenges, whether or not it’s their ability to drive,” Kottke said. “Most Boomers are going to want to drive as long as possible. And that’s a really good option. We need to focus on how to get people driving safely longer.”

That’s one aspect of the Silver Tsunami that experts focus on: The longer Boomers can safely and happily live in their own homes and drive their cars, the easier it’ll be on the infrastructure. That’s where agencies like Boulder County’s Area Agency on Aging and the nonprofit Care Connect come in. Both organizations offer services to keep seniors as independent as possible. It’s called “aging in place.”

“They can spend $250 a year on the services we offer, or $250 a day on a nursing home,” said Care Connect Executive Director Emily Ditty. “If you can stay in your home and you want to stay in your home, we want to make that possible.”

Care Connect is a volunteer-driven nonprofit that works with residents and local organizations to provide essential services for older adults. They offer a fix-it program, in which handy volunteers do repairs and maintenance on seniors’ homes or shovel snow after a storm; the carry-out caravan, a grocery delivery program; and a medical mobility service, which uses door-to-door transportation through Via and volunteer support to get older residents to and from doctors appointments. They install 400 grab bars in residents’ homes a year.

Ditty says Care Connect’s offerings have grown in recent years, and they will continue to grow as they find gaps in services for older adults. They recently launched a financial literacy program that works to prevent financial exploitation of older adults.

“It’s difficult to navigate the new reality of being a senior,” Ditty said. “Our volunteers can be the eyes, ears and mouths for our clients.”

They service about 2,500 seniors a year and expect to double that by 2014. Ditty said the organization will to continue to “beef up” services and volunteers as the Age Wave hits.

Ditty considers Care Connect as a part of the regional “safety net” for older adults. It’s a safety net that will need to get much bigger in the coming years, she said, and that’s a significant concern.

“If we are going to call ourselves a safety net, it has to be strong and wide,” Ditty said, admitting that there are gaps in services, including a focus on the older Latino community and more financial protections. “And we all have to work together to make this net as strong and as wide as possible. A community in which we age well is the kind of community we all want to live in. I don’t think we want to live in a place where one group of people is not looked after.”

A big part of that safety net is housing. When an older adult is no longer able to live alone or wants to live at home, he or she may need to move in with family or consider finding a senior-friendly housing facility, such as a nursing home, assisted living community or active senior housing development. While private facilities usually keep up with the need for higher-end senior housing—like Lafayette’s new Legacy at Lafayette—one big concern in the community is affordable housing for seniors.

Willa Williford is the housing division director for Boulder County’s Housing and Human Services Department, which includes the Boulder County Housing Authority. Williford’s division focuses on areas in Boulder County outside the peripheries of Boulder Housing Partners and Longmont Housing Partners. The Boulder County Housing Authority currently has 560 affordable housing units throughout the community. They hope to nearly double that during the next 10 years.

“We are most definitely looking ahead and seeing that need increasing. We want to respond to it and be proactive,” Williford said. “We are actively seeking opportunities to buy land, and we have been looking for land bank opportunities. Right now our focus has been in Louisville, Superior and Gunbarrel. Those communities have had quite a bit of support for increasing their inventory of senior housing.”

It’s an opportunity-driven task. It depends on where there is land, where there is need and what the money sources are. She says Superior is a likely location for a project in the coming years, as is Louisville. Williford said they are also working with a task force in Nederland to potentially help develop some affordable housing there.

The county’s most recent addition to the affordable senior housing inventory is Josephine Commons, a 55-plus housing project east of Lafayette. It’s a beautiful development: 74 units that seem more like apartments than public housing. There is a garden and common area as well as patios.

“It really speaks to the need in the community in how much interest there was and how quickly it filled up,” Williford said. “We received the certificate of occupancy in August and within a few days, we had all the units spoken for.”

The vacant land to the west of Josephine Commons is the future site of Aspen Wall, another affordable housing project with no age restrictions. It’ll include 72 units.

The other popular Housing Authority program is the Section 8 voucher, which provides a subsidy that individuals can use in the private market. They pay 30 percent of their income to rent and the Department of Housing and Urban Development will pay the rest.

“We have about 800 vouchers,” Williford said. “That’s another resource for seniors, but it’s very much in demand. Our wait list is three years long.”

New affordable housing projects for seniors are rare, so when a unit opens up, it’s filled fast, she said.

Boulder Housing Partner’s High Mar project, 59 affordable apartments for 55-plus residents, is expected to fill up fast. Construction on High Mar will begin in February, and leasing will begin in early 2014. Shannon Cox Baker, project manager, said they are maintaining an interest list with more than 100 names.

“There hasn’t been a new affordable senior housing project built in Boulder in years,” she said. “The existing inventory is willfully out of date.”

She says that if the popularity of Josephine Commons is any indicator, High Mar should lease up quickly.

Still, with an estimated 100,000 older adults in the marketplace in the coming years, these projects are like drops in the tsunami. Because of cost, housing—especially, affordable housing—is sure to be the major hurdle.

“I hope we are up for the challenge,” Williford said. “I know we can’t single-handedly meet that need. There is a strong role for the private sector and other nonprofit organizations. Like we’ve said, one size does not fit all.”

It’s a group effort, and there will be no immediate solutions. Leach of the Area Agency on Aging says her department must take on the role of advocate.

“We have not done what we need to do,” she admitted. “While I don’t think we can do everything, I think we can be the pot stirrers, the question askers.”

While funding is tight and Older Americans Act dollars, which partially fund the AAA, have been flat for years, Leach is looking to focus on some key areas, including information resources that help residents figure out what services they may need or that counsel them on Medicare.

“If there is one thing we can do as the numbers increase, it’s to make our information as seamless, as friendly and as impactful as it can be,” she said. “We can’t provide services for everyone, but we can get information to people and they can choose the right service for them, or figure out what they can do for themselves. That frees up the services for those who are most vulnerable. It might be someone who has money to purchase private services, and they just need the right information. We can be that resource.”

She also wants to begin meeting with other county departments to look at where they might see impacts from an increased number of older adults—from parks and recreation to urban planning. But Leach is confident that the Silver Tsunami will not be an actual disaster. She doesn’t want the community and her co-workers to see this Age Wave as a negative, as something to fear or to panic over. In fact, she says we should also focus on the benefits that will come with having a large silver-haired community.

“One thing I don’t think people realize about having an aging population is the positives,” she said. “There are volunteer opportunities; they will serve on boards and commissions. We have this wealth of wisdom and experience.”

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