Greater Portland can expect changes as haven for baby boomers
PORTLAND — A report last week by U.S. News and World Report found that baby boomers account for nearly 30 percent of the population of greater Portland – the highest percentage in the country.
While the median national age is 37.2, Maine is the oldest state, with a median age of 42.7. So it's not surprising that the population of baby boomers – people born between 1946 and 1964 – is higher than average, too.
And as the baby boomers continue to age and retire, the pressure on state and non-governmental services is certain to increase.
"On the one hand, I'm not surprised, and on the other, I am a little surprised," said Diane Scully, the director of the Office of Elder Affairs, which is part of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
Scully, who is a baby boomer, said she has been hearing anecdotally that boomers were moving to the Portland area, but has never seen the numbers to confirm it. Her office does its studies by county, rather than by metropolitan area.
"This creates both challenges and opportunities," she said. "As people get older they need more support and we need to decide what that support is going to look like. That's a challenge."
But Scully said there are opportunities, because many baby boomers are likely to keep working, start new careers or volunteer into their older years.
"We shouldn't just write them off," she said.
While many boomers may continue to work, there are also those who will be affected by chronic or unexpected illnesses, who will need care. Scully said the state needs to focus on ways to keep these people in their homes, rather than nursing homes.
"It's where people want to be and it costs less," she said.
According to a 2010 study by USM's Muskie School for Public Service, from 2000 to 2008, the number of nursing home residents in Maine dropped by nearly 14 percent. At the same time, the number of people staying in non-medical residential care facilities increased by 32 percent.
During that period, people in residential care facilities who are on MaineCare increased 57 percent.
"Between now and 2050, if nothing changes, like new drugs or a cure, Medicare spending for Alzheimer's is going to increase 600 percent," said Sarah Stepp, Maine Alzheimer's Association development director.
Stepp said Maine and the country are unprepared for the baby boom generation to enter retirement age.
"About half of people 85 or older have Alzheimer's disease," she said.
By most projections, a majority of boomers are expected to live well into their 80s.
"In terms of a medical diagnosis, (Alzheimer's disease) has the potential to cripple the Medicare system," Stepp said.
But chronic disease is not the only challenge for the area, as the boomers hit retirement.
According to a recent report by the organization Transportation for America, the need for public transportation in areas with an older population will grow as the boomers lose their ability to drive, but still remain active.
"I don't think their transportation needs are different than the general population, but if their needs aren't met, we're stranding people," said Sara Trafton, executive director of the Regional Transport Program, which provides public transportation to seniors and disabled people.
Trafton said RTP already has more requests for transports than it can meet. The service is run by 55 employees and about 75 volunteers who drive seniors to the supermarket, medical appointments and other necessary outings. Currently, they make between 1,500 and 1,700 trips per day in Cumberland County.
"We're looking at where the gaps are, and seeing the gaps are getting bigger," Trafton said.
Her fleet of volunteers shrank last year when the Department of Health and Human Services had to cut the amount it reimbursed volunteers for mileage.
"Mileage reimbursement went down as gas prices went up," Trafton said. As a result, volunteers could no longer afford to provide the service.
The Transportation for America report also calls on communities to create better access to walking paths and sidewalks.
"In addition to public transportation, local communities must focus on accommodating more trips by walking. Walking provides the link that connects a senior at home with the public transportation system," the report states.
The report includes a map of parts of Cumberland and York counties that shows the current elderly population as it corresponds with access to public transit, and projects out to 2015 the area's increase in elderly population and need for public transit.
Trafton said that many RTP customers live in the area the Portland METRO buses serve.
"We go to people's houses and pick them up. That's what people need," she said.
Eileen Whynot, director of community relations for the Southern Maine Agency on Aging in Scarborough, said that in addition to a shortage of retirement housing and services, baby boomers will face a confusing system of Medicare regulations.
The SMAAA provides classes on applying for Medicare and choosing a drug plan out of the 50 available plans. Whynot said they started offering the classes once a month a year and half ago. Now they offer them weekly in Scarborough, as well as at some of their satellite facilities, and every class is full.
Housing options will also be a major obstacle for the boomers as they move into residential living facilities and nursing homes.
"Right now, there are waiting lists to get into assisted living," Whynot said. "Senior living will need to expand. Already there's a huge need and it will only get increasingly so."
She predicted this next generation of retirees may find themselves living with their elderly parents or their children.
"I think we'll see multiple generations in the same home, the way it used to be," Whynot said.