Stateline Story

Southern States Brace for Effects of Aging Population

  • September 21, 2004
  • By Kathleen Murphy

Southern governors, whose states hold the largest percentage of elderly in the nation, are looking to New York for ways to prepare for a graying population.

At a Southern Governors Association (SGA) meeting in Richmond, Va., recently, members delved into details of New York's Project 2015, which enlisted representatives from 36 cabinet-level state agencies to assess the impact of an increasingly older population. Southern governors care about aging because 36 percent of U.S. citizens over 55 live in the South, the U.S. Census Bureau reports.

The past decade has been the calm before the storm for state agencies working with the elderly because of the much-feared aging of baby boomers, the largest generation in American history who are now between the ages of 40 and 59 and who soon will rely more on state programs.

While the South leads the nation in percentages of elderly people, California had the highest number of people 65 and over in 2003, followed by Florida, New York, Texas and Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2002, New York's Office for the Aging followed Republican Gov. George Pataki's order to study how state agencies can change their mission to accommodate the elderly. Project 2015 looked at demographic projections for aging in New York in the year 2015 and produced recommendations on how to prepare for increased demand.

An aging population is expected to bring a revenue decline and a spending rise that some believe will make the states' financial burden heavier. People over 65 spend less, which translates into lower sales- and use-tax collections. While some will continue to work, many will receive the majority of their income from non-taxable sources. States such as Kentucky offer homestead exemptions for people over 65 that shield elderly property owners from higher taxes.

The New York project won southern governors' attention because it is the "most progressive, systematic approach to aging," said Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D), SGA chairman, whose interest in state programs for the elderly was inspired by his desire to help his father find services and answers for his mother, who is suffering with Alzheimer's disease.

Project 2015 stood out because too often states look at aging in the context of its impact on transportation or health care but rarely "step back and look at aging in a broader context," Warner said. "We're going to be dealing with a demographic wave that this country, this world, has never experienced."

New York state officials summoned to talk about the aging project at first said, "Why are we here? What is our connection?" said Mark Kissinger, New York's deputy secretary for health and human services. But nine months later, the agencies had identified strategies for assuring the state is prepared to meet the challenges of the dramatic demographic change expected by 2015, Kissinger said.

Project 2015 participants concluded:

  • The need will grow for improving the fit between government services and consumers' needs in areas such as transportation, housing and communication. State agencies should collaborate in addressing the impact of an aging population.
  • Relying on technology can improve communication with citizens.
  • Mass retirements will cause a workforce gap that can be closed by recruiting retirees and retaining experienced older workers.

SGA's broad discussion about aging included presentations on caregiving, aging's impact on the workforce and voters' attitudes toward spending on programs for the aging. Corporations including Anthem Blue Cross/ Blue Shield of Virginia, Pfizer, Bayer Corp., and Eli Lilly & Co., sponsored the meeting, which was closed to ordinary citizens.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R) said the discussion of aging skirted the real problem of medical costs. "We built a system in this country where nobody cares about cost," Riley said.

Warner said many southern states have started small programs to address an aging population. Among existing programs:

  • West Virginia started a statewide program last year to encourage senior citizens to increase their physical activity by using a pedometer, keeping track of their steps and getting involved in a walking program.
  • Mississippi has started a Web-based ordering system for the delivery of meals in the statewide elderly nutrition program. The program serves more than 3.7 million meals annually at senior centers, adult day-care centers and sometimes at seniors' homes.
  • GeorgiaCares is a public-private partnership to help Medicare beneficiaries enroll in low-cost prescription savings programs sponsored by pharmaceutical companies.
  • Virginia's SeniorNavigator.com is a public-private partnership that provides information over the Internet about health and aging. The site also has an Ask an Expert feature that lets consumers get answers to personal questions within 24 hours. Arkansas has a similar program, ARGetCare.org, which offers a state directory of resources.

Emily De Rocco, assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Labor employment and training administration, told southern governors that the Labor Department is currently viewing elderly people as an untapped labor pool.

Warner said there will be a need for more older persons to stay in the workforce, changing the concept of retirement.