Many of our communities have been involved with Community Needs Assessments, Community Health Needs Assessments, Community Economic Development Plans, and ongoing planning for the built environment. All of these planning lenses are helpful ways to look at communities, and build for the future. One of the most important lenses to use for community planning for the next 10 to 20 years is the projected impact of aging on our communities, counties and states. What will is mean for a state to move from being 39th in proportion of older adults in 2010, to being 4th by 2030? What does it mean for a county to have a population shift that includes an increase of older adults by over 100% in the next 10 years, along with a projected reduction of people under 40 years old?
Understanding the Demographic Trend
The demographic trend has been called by many names, such as the “Age Wave,” or “Silver Tsunami,” with arguments in meetings and on blogs about whether those terms are helpful or pejorative, descriptive or ageist. In addition, some people find the terms “elderly” difficult, while others find “seniors” to be patronizing. Once people have dealt with parsing the grammatical minefield, then the most important issues are to understand both the demographic trend and other substantive factors.
Although a few in the field indicate that the aging of the population is rather slow and easily absorbed, the vast majority of experts agree that this is a significant, fast-moving trend that will not be easily absorbed. Research I’ve conducted has covered everything from Age calculator future health professional shortages and health system gaps to the built environment, funding and policy trends. The potential impact of the aging of our population on communities and states is significant. It will require proactive, sustained responses at community, state and national levels.
Some communities and states are better positioned to respond to this trend than others.
Impact Also Depends on a Few Other Key Factors
The ability of groups to effectively respond depends upon a number of other key factors. Although the demographic trend is the primary issue, other important factors impacting our ability to respond include the following:
- Overall community health;
- Poverty levels, average and median incomes (especially for middle aged and elderly);
- Local municipal budgets, economic ratings, and taxing capacity;
- Legislation, policies, and funding related to both aging and community development;
- Regional infrastructure and built environment.
The impact of the demographic trend is also shaped by the state of community and regional planning already in place to deal with the impact of aging upon our communities. Leadership and citizen engagement are also important factors that could help drive and mobilize initiatives. Leaders can and should respond. The issues are complex, but not overwhelming. However, they need to be addressed proactively.
How a Social Calculator can Predict the Potential Impact of Aging for Communities and States
Many of these factors have been analyzed by our team through a number of aging related research and planning projects over the past few years. We are now completing an Aging Social Impact Calculator that can provide an initial scan of the local environment, and the state environment. It looks at key factors that shape a county’s or state’s social, economic, and community health.
Research projects that I’ve recently completed demonstrate that the Social Determinants of Health, health rankings, economic benchmarks and policy issues either help communities and states to move forward, or serve as additional challenges.
Social Determinants. The Social Determinants shape us as individuals, families and communities. They include things such as family income, jobs, poverty and financial assets. Income, assets, poverty, and unemployment have been demonstrated to be some of the most important shapers of family and community health, health disparities, and health equity. Race and ethnicity have been seen as extremely important by the World Health Organization, U.S. federal government bureaus, and the health research and funding community. Individual, family and community educational levels are also significant. Taken together, or aggregated, one finds community snapshots that reflect the local economy, jobs and poverty; racial and ethnic mix; and educational levels. They help to predict how our lives will be shaped in the future.