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America’s elderly population faces dramatic financial, health issues


African American senior citizens have witnessed dramatic changes in the national landscape. Within social and economic status, African Americans from the Civil Rights Movement through the election of the first Black president have risen from the depths of discrimination and poverty to bear witness to many significant events offering increased opportunities. However, Black seniors continue to face serious struggles and instability such as low income, lack of adequate medical care, and financial insecurity.

42.6 million American seniors

Last year, the Administration for Community Living, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), released a statistical profile of African Americans 65 years and older. They reported that there were 46.2 million Americans 65 years and over with this population expected to more than double by 2060 to 98.2 million. Black seniors total 4 million in 2016 and that number is projected to jump to 12 million by mid century. Today, African Americans comprise about nine percent of America’s seniors. Among centenarians (persons 100 years and older), African Americans total 8,682 persons (1,558 men and 7,024 women).

Income disparities are present among all age groups as compared to White Americans. For instance, households containing families headed by African Americans age 65 and older reported a median income in 2013 of $42,805, compared to $54,184 for all older households headed by seniors. The median personal income for Black male seniors in 2013 averaged $23,026 ($14,633 for women).

Maintaining good health is always a concern for senior citizens. The HHS report revealed that both older Black men and women reported “very good/excellent” health status. While positive health evaluations tend to decline with age, 31 percent of African American men ages 65-74 reported “very good/excellent”” health while 30 percent of Black women in this age group gave the same response.

Certain chronic conditions

There are chronic conditions that specifically affect African American seniors more so than with other segments of the population. Hypertension (85 percent in 2012), diagnosed arthritis (51 percent), all forms of heart disease (27 percent), diagnosed diabetes (39 percent), and cancer (17 percent) were reportedly the most immediate life-threatening conditions affecting Black seniors.

As senior citizens continue to occupy an even greater share of the U.S. population, a number of issues will affect this segment of society as the nation continues to get a little “older and grayer.”

The number of senior citizens is definitely on the rise. In 2010, the U.S. Census reported that there were 40.3 million people 65 years and above which comprises 13 percent of the population. The total is reportedly 12 times the number it was in 1900 when this age group constituted only 4.1 percent of the population. By 2050, projections indicate that the population over 65 years will take in 20.9 percent of the population.

To put these figures into better perspective, in 2010 (for every 100 American citizens) there were 45 who were younger than age 20, and 22 people aged 65 years and older, meaning that there were four and one-half workers supporting each older person. As Baby Boomers turn 65, this ratio is projected to increase dramatically, thereby leaving fewer workers for every older one.

Rising healthcare costs

The welfare of senior citizens is expected to be increasingly important on the national scene, particularly because more Baby Boomers are becoming eligible for Social Security and Medicare which, depending on the latest governmental research or political leaning, are a pair of programs which may or may not be solvent by mid century.  Right now, the HHS cites healthcare as the biggest challenge facing American seniors.

In 2010, persons 65 years and older spent about $18,424 on their personal healthcare “about three times more than the average working-aging adult and about five times more than the average child,” according to a 2014 study reported in the journal Health Affairs. The cost of caring for elderly persons with dementia is projected to grow substantially in the coming decades; the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in 2013 reported that, as early as 2030, the cost of Alzheimer’s care alone will exceed $1 trillion annually.

Health issues are naturally the first thing people consider, when discussing senior citizens. However, there are a myriad of issues that affect this population notably financial resources. The Great Recession is still having a negative impact on persons 65 years and older because many had to keep working—or return to work—in order to maintain a suitable standard of living. The CBO reported that the unemployment rate for persons 65 to 69 years rose from 14.5 percent in 2005 to 16.2 percent in 2010. While this figure is six years old and was calculated in the middle of the Great Recession, it remains true that when the typical unskilled worker aged 55 years and older becomes unemployed, it is considerably more difficult to find regular employment above minimum wage.

One-fifth of county population are seniors

In Los Angeles County, senior citizens comprise roughly one fifth of the population which is expected to become increasingly grayer; aging Baby Boomers, slowing immigration trends and shrinking birthrates are radically changing the face of the region. A 2013 study from the USC Population Dynamics Research Group suggested that as the number of local births continue to decline (families opting for fewer children) there will be fewer young people to care for the growing ranks of the elderly. Researchers predicted that by 2033 Los Angeles County will gain 867,000 senior citizens and lose 630,000 people younger than 25. A similar trend is reportedly underway nationwide but within Los Angeles County the shift will come after the highest levels of immigration and general population growth.

“Los Angeles County is the most extreme example [generational shift] in California, and probably in the country,” said Dowell Myers, one of the USC researchers. “Everything has changed in California because we’re losing kids, and ground zero is Los Angeles County.”

An example of the USC findings reveals that in 2010 senior citizens accounted for about 20 of every 100 adults of working age in the county. However, in less than two decades seniors are expected to account for 36 of every 100 adults countywide. By the middle of the century, the researchers predicted, Los Angeles County will have more senior citizens per worker than California or the country as a whole. This represents a reversal, according to the report, from where the numbers stand today. And between Social Security, Medicare, pensions and other “entitlements,” the younger generation will have to fork over much more money and resources to maintain “quality of life” issues for their elders.

Expect drastic increase in senior population

Myers said that state governments should prepare for the coming tide of the elderly. There will be a growing demand for medical care that will hit hospitals and state programs in a major way not only financially, but with manpower—specifically persons specializing in geriatric care.

Because the senior population is expected to rise significantly over the next few decades, housing will increasingly become a pressing issue. Many houses are poorly suited for aging residents who want to remain in their homes instead of moving to assisted living or institutionalized care. There can be a significant cost for remodeling, if a person becomes confined to a wheelchair, resides in a two-story home, needs a walk-in shower or simple things like raised toilets and grab bars.

Then there’s transportation. Thankfully, Los Angeles County has some advantages for elderly persons in that the proximity of grocery stores-even in the some of the poorest neighborhoods—along with an increased emphasis on transit may be a comfort for persons who will no longer be able to drive. The Milken Institute in 2012 said the county ranks among the “best cities for successful aging” in rating the area south to Long Beach and into Santa Ana as 30th out of 100 large metropolitan areas.

The term “successful aging” (or “healthy aging”) has become even more important as it relates to good health. All physicians will attest that regular exercise will benefit senior citizens far more than their younger counterparts. As we get older, our bodies begin to lose their natural ability to maintain a strong metabolism, which is vital for giving us energy and a healthy body. Therefore, it is important for senior citizens to exercise and energize their bodies.

Heart health key to longevity

The Mayo Clinic has done extensive research into how regular physical activity can not only add years to the lifespan, but also in increasing mental capacity. Their researchers said heart health is the most important factor involved in longevity. They suggest seniors increase their walking, swimming or other activities. Regular moderate physical activity can help seniors to maintain an optimal weight, lower blood pressure and lessen the extent of arterial stiffening (one of the leading causes of stroke).

Eating a healthy diet is vital to good health in the senior years. Physicians will always suggest a regular intake of vegetables, selected fruits, whole grains and high-fiber foods along with lean sources of protein (i.e. fish). Seniors should limit food high in saturated fat and sodium.

Because stress can take a marked toll on your heart, the Mayo Clinic study recommended a regular sleep regimen and although sleep patterns vary from person to person, seven to eight hours each night is recommended.

Do bones and muscles tend to get weaker as you age? Yes, they can, therefore the Institute of Medicine recommends for men 51 to 70 years an intake of 1,000 milligrams of calcium each day, and for women in the same age group 1,200 milligrams. Dietary sources of calcium include dairy products, broccoli, kale … even salmon or sardines. Also, a daily intake of vitamin D (600 international units or “IU”) is recommended for all ages but, particularly for persons 71 years and older this vitamin should be increased to 800 IU each day.

Addressing ‘senior isolation’

One of the biggest issues facing elders is “senior isolation” or persons living without the support of family or friends. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2014 that 11 million seniors—or 28 percent of the population over age 65—lived alone. The report illustrated that as people get older, their likelihood of living alone only increases.

In Lancaster last month, officials tried to address the issue of senior isolation with plans to expand  the existing Antelope Valley Senior Center, 777 W. Jackman St. The $1.5 million renovation is a collaboration between the city and Los Angeles County and upon completion, patrons will enjoy a larger multipurpose area, new furniture and lighting fixtures, and extensive modifications throughout the facility.

“Our seniors comprise an extremely vital component of the Antelope Valley community,” said Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris. “We look forward to partnering with Supervisor [Mike] Antonovich’s office on their very worthwhile project, which will directly benefit the many seniors who call Lancaster home.”