Alzheimer’s funding just first step to aid aging population

A 77-year-old man running uphill in a road race at Daggett Pass, Nevada. (Photo: Karin Hildebrand Lau)

By including $3 million in annual funding for Alzheimer’s research in the budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom showed he is willing to take action on issues important to California’s fast-growing aging population. Still, the move is only the beginning of what must be a much larger effort to keep pace with our older population’s future needs.

California’s older adult population is expected to nearly double, growing 90 percent, or by four million people, by 2030. While 14 percent of the state’s population today is over 65, the California Department of Finance projects the proportion to grow to 25 percent by 2050, putting immense strain on personal, private and public resources.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 70 percent of baby boomers can expect to need some form of long-term care in their lifetime.

This rapid growth underscores the need to plan for the proper, dignified care and services that an older population will require. As Gov. Newsom declared on the campaign trail, it’s time for a Master Plan on Aging to guide California responsibly into the future.

The aging crisis touches every facet of life,from housing,nutrition and health to long-term care services. Few people are financially prepared for long-term care, and many middle-income Americans end up draining their financial resources and turning to Medicaid for assistance.Many older Californians exhaust their own retirement savings paying for care, eventually “spending down” and qualifying for Medi-Cal. We need solutions that kick in before people are forced to spend themselves into poverty.

One in five Californians over the age of 65 already lives in poverty, a higher proportion than in any other state. Our high cost of living is a big factor, compounded by a shortage of housing that often makes decent living conditions entirely unaffordable not only for older adults but also for their families, friends, neighbors and communities. Seniors who have fixed incomes need specific solutions for their housing needs.

Housing represents the largest portion of older adults’ expenses and hits middle- and low-income adults hardest. More than three out of four low-income older Californian tenants spend more than a third of their income on rent, according to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

As stark as the housing crunch appears, a more pressing issue threatening California’s ability to serve its citizens involves a lack of access to long-term services and support (LTSS). Older adults and people with disabilities who have functional limitations or chronic illnesses need long-term assistance with basic tasks, such as bathing, dressing, fixing meals, taking medications, completing errands and going grocery shopping.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 70 percent of baby boomers can expect to need some form of long-term care in their lifetime, and by 2035, the number of older households in the nation with a disability will increase by 76 percent to 3.2 million.

Preparing a workforce to serve the onslaught of older adults is critical. Nationally, 2.5 million LTSS workers will be needed by 2030 to keep up with the growth of America’s aging population, not to mention the 36,000 geriatric physicians that will be needed, over four times as many as the 7,750 such physicians currently projected.

As the state with the largest proportion of older citizens, California must ensure that we have enough care professionals – nursing and home-care givers as well as physicians – to support the explosion in our aging population.

California is already ill-equipped to handle the increased demand for assistance and care created by the rising longevity of our population. Tackling the broad issue one problem at a time is not a road map to success. A thoughtful,comprehensive Master Plan for Aging is both smart policy and morally responsible.

Editor’s Note: Jeannee Parker Martin is the president and chief executive officer of LeadingAge California, which advocates for quality, nonprofit senior living and care.

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