Rockford's not doing well. The Illinois city, about 90 miles northwest of Chicago, was once a leading furniture-making center, but those jobs are mostly gone. As a result, Rockford's unemployment rate was among the highest among U.S. cities during the recent recession.
Most jobs that remain are snatched up by workers 55 and older — about all that's left of Rockford's working-age population. Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey, who is in his 40s, was elected on a platform of promising economic revitalization that would help bring young people — including natives who've left — back to town.
Without strong cultural amenities or a major university, it's been a tough sell. Lack of jobs presents the biggest obstacle. Even entry-level jobs paying just above minimum wage that once would have gone to teenagers or people in their 20s are now largely held by workers in their 50s. “We have an aging population, and it's getting poorer,” said James Ryan, Rockford's city administrator.
Rockford may be an extreme case, but it's not unique. Many former industrial cities in the Northeast and Midwest are growing both older and less affluent. Among the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas, the ones that have had the highest percentage growth of seniors are struggling places such as Scranton, Pa., Buffalo, N.Y., and Youngstown, Ohio.
“They have higher concentrations of seniors,” says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution think tank who has analyzed 2010 census data on the location of seniors. “The younger people have left.”
There are metropolitan areas in Florida that have a high density of people over age 65. But the number of seniors and aging baby boomers who pick up and move to warmer climes in Florida and Arizona is relatively small. Most people retire in their own homes, or at least their own counties.
Eighty-year-old Ada Noda, of St. Augustine, Fla., developed health problems and couldn't work, forcing her to declare bankruptcy. Aging trends are seen by many experts as a significant reason for the climb in health care costs. But health economists say medical costs are rising largely because of the increasing availability of expensive treatments. (AP Photo/Jake Roth)
“You can certainly find lots of upper-middle-class baby boomers who are coping quite well, moving into college towns where there are good social services available and good medical services,” says demographer Phillip Longman, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. “The vast majority of baby boomers, however, are often stuck underwater in postwar tract housing and more recent exurban construction. They can't get out if they wanted to.”
Frey says it's important for communities, particularly in the suburbs that were planned with younger populations in mind, to learn to adapt to aging ones. Every metropolitan area, he says, is seeing marked growth in its senior population — and will see more as boomers age. “The baby boom python keeps rolling along,” he says.
In recent years, many local governments and nonprofit groups have tried to come up with programs, such as increased transit, that will help address the needs of populations that are “aging in place.”
About 40 localities, including Atlanta, Iowa City, Iowa, and Pima County, Ariz., have passed ordinances mapping out voluntary or mandatory design requirements for new-home construction that would accommodate the needs of seniors and the disabled, sparing more of them from moving to nursing homes. “We could save a lot of money if individuals could continue to live in their own homes and receive in-home nursing if they need it,” says Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who has introduced “inclusive home design” legislation at the federal level.
Helping seniors cope with chronic disease is another way to keep them out of nursing homes. That's why Elder Services of Merrimack Valley in Lawrence, Mass., has been working with seniors and physicians to help coordinate management of prescription drug regimens and other treatments. “We're not a medical facility, but what we have is the ability to draw elders in and educate them on their health care,” says Rosanne DiStefano, the facility's executive director.
DiStefano's program has been widely imitated in Massachusetts, as have a number of other innovations designed to help residents adjust to old age. But such programs are having trouble attracting funding in the present budget environment.
Many local governments are providing exercise classes and nutrition assistance for seniors, but a survey by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging found that finance and funding problems are the biggest challenge localities face in adjusting to an aging population. Thirty percent of local governments say that their overall revenues are in decline.
“If you go community by community, sure, some have developed programs that are better than others,” says Robert H. Binstock, a professor of aging and public policy at Case Western Reserve University. “Overall, it's a tremendous problem.”
It's not just the lack of programming help offered by governments that is a problem for aging communities, but also a decline in basic services and amenities, Binstock says.
“You've got lots of places that are aging, and the young people are moving out, particularly in rural areas,” he says. “You're going to have communities that aren't even going to have grocery stores.”
Some states have a youth population that is growing more rapidly than the older population, notably in the Southwest, says Frey. But aging populations are growing in many parts of the country not accustomed to accommodating them.
The localities where older residents are starting to predominate, such as Rockford, “are the ones that are going to be most severely hit,” says Frey. “We have a country that's aging everywhere, but it's only young in certain spots.”
— Alan Greenblatt