As our population ages, unique challenges and needs continue to emerge

Learn what resources are available to help the increasing number of older adults navigate safely through their golden years.

In 1900, there were approximately 3.1 million people age 65 or older in the United States. By 2010, governmental agency reports which are based on the U.S. census data indicated that 40 million individuals, or 13 percent of the country’s population, were ages 65 or older. In 2030, as the youngest of the baby boomer generation reaches their “golden years,” these studies estimate that 72 million, or 20 percent of U. S. residents, will be ages 65 or older.

In fact, the faster growing segment of the U. S. population according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), are those ages 85 or older. This age group is also referred to as the “oldest old” by NIA, whose research shows 4 million such individuals currently reside in the U.S., but projects the number will surpass 19 million by 2050. Even more interesting is the number of centenarians today- people who are living to age 100 or beyond. While there were approximately 3,000 “American centenarians” in 1950, NIA estimates there will be close to one million by 2050.

What factors are thought to be responsible for lengthening the human life span? Medical advances have resulted in earlier diagnosis and improved treatment for serious diseases such as heart disease, cancers, stroke and diabetes. The public today is more aware of common symptoms of these diseases, the importance of routine medical screening and how preventative care can help extend life span. Improved lifestyle practices (regular physical activity, avoiding tobacco, a healthy diet, etc.) have also been credited with playing an important role.

While life span improvements may be exciting news for some, unfortunately, not everyone is enjoying these extra years in good health. In fact, this changing demographic has created unprecedented challenges for older individuals, their families, and health care systems in the U.S. and elsewhere. Age-related dementias and macular degeneration are but two examples of devastating diseases that strike older adults. Individuals may require round the clock caregiving which can be very expensive. If assisted living facilities are not available or affordable, family members often must provide care in addition to other job and family responsibilities.

Health issues are not the only dilemma facing seniors. According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), seniors are defrauded at twice the rate as younger individuals. They further note that the elderly are less inclined to report such crimes for fear that their family members may think they are no longer capable of handling their own finances. Technological advances complicate the situation even further, providing new venues for scam artists to victimize older adults. The DHS site offers several links for seniors to learn more about protecting themselves from fraud schemes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also has an extensive list of common fraudulent schemes and many helpful tips for avoiding such traps.

Those searching for housing options and available financial assistance are advised to check the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) website which provides a variety of useful information as well as phone numbers for HUD-approved housing counselors. Additional resources for older adults and their families can be found on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website. Topics covered include how to protect investments, information about retirement, elder financial abuse, legal resources and end of life issues.

The Administration for Community Living, (ACL), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is another organization that focuses on issues faced by older adults. Their online resource page for older adults includes links to assist individuals searching for eldercare services, long-term care, and benefit programs. Since 1963, they have been celebrating May as Older American Month designating a unique theme each year to promote healthy aging. Senior Corps is yet another program that was conceptualized during President Kennedy’s era. Through that program seniors contribute a wealth of skills and knowledge by volunteering as mentors, coaches, foster grandparents, senior companions, or other roles as needed. Clearly, older adults are vital, contributing members of their local community at the same time they may need some services themselves due to the aging process.

Michigan State University Extension staff can teach individuals how to make healthy lifestyle choices so they can better weather health conditions that may arise as they age. Informative articles about aging-related issues can be found on their website and questions can be directed to knowledgeable Extension experts.

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