• Gretchen Loves Anchorage

graying and staying: alaska's growing senior population

A couple months ago I read What the world’s best cities will look like in 2030, an article about how cities can prepare for and attract aging populations, and shared it on Facebook with the question, “What can we do to become more age friendly and keep our seniors here?” Most responses sited the cold, dark winters and a few others mentioned the lack of affordable housing and challenging transportation as deterrents to staying. The general consensus seemed to be that once Alaskans hit retirement age, it’s snow bird time: relentlessly sunny skies and outlet malls, here we come!

Although certainly true for a time (my own grandparents wintered — and autumn-ed and spring-ed — in Phoenix, returning to Cooper Landing every year for a summer of fishing, midnight sun, and grandkids), it’s time to discard this oft repeated trope; according to the Alaska Commission on Aging, our state has had the fastest growing population of people age 65 and older in the nation for six consecutive years and is projected to more than double by 2042. That’s not to say that seniors aren’t traveling, or even snow birding a bit – as one Facebook commenter said, “I want to see more of this wonderful world before I check out” – but they’re remaining residents of Alaska, and for more reasons than just a PFD check.

What’s the attraction?

The National Institute of Retirement Security cites

generous benefits, more working opportunities, and better funded services as reasons why the Alaska was ranked the 11th best place in the US for seniors in 2014. Alaska offers more than that, though; our state is a pretty great place to live in general. For example, Phil and Susan Schnering are in the midst of relocating from Baltimore to Anchorage. Although the impetus for their move is to be near their daughter and her growing family, they like that the city is small while still offering enough activities and cultural events to keep life interesting. Additional attractions include the climate, the mountains, and lack of taxes….and considering the Phil is a lifelong sailor, “the prospect of a cruise up the inland passage, and being able to experience the wilderness and all its beauty is a nice expectation for us.” The draw of our landscape and lifestyle is seconded in What Does It cost to Retire in Alaska, in which Greg DePersio writes, "...retirees seeking breathtaking scenery, skiing, snowmobiling, and world-class hiking and biking cannot find a better destination for Alaska." He goes on to site our state as a "model of diversity, both in lifestyle and in climate.” Good reasons for people of any age to move to Alaska!

Why does it matter?

By 2030, more than one billion people - that’s one in eight - will be age 65 or older. In Alaska, the 60-plus population has increased almost 27 percent and the 65-plus population by 29 percent since 2010; this growth is especially impressive considering that the total state population grew by only 3.6 percent. The senior population contributes significantly to our economy: retirement income, Social Security benefits (averaging $1,200 per person) health care spending, job earnings, and other income total an estimated $2.4 billion annually. DePersio estimates that a monthly income of 2,300 is needed to live a comfortable but basic lifestyle, and most of that spending is staying in state.

Here are a few more ways seniors impact our economy, courtesy of the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services, Alaska Commission on Aging Alaska State Plan for Senior Services, FY2016-2019:

The retirement industry creates approximately 13,000 jobs in health care, long-term care supports, housing, and other employment sectors.

Seniors in the labor force (estimated to be 20 percent of Alaskans age 65 plus) contribute an additional $633 million.

For the most part, seniors spend locally throughout the year, which increases the size of the economy and fosters economies of scale.

Retirees comprise about 24% of all volunteers in Alaska contributing an estimated 86 hours per person annually (or 4 million hours in total), which is equivalent to $90 million (estimated at $22 per volunteer hour of services rendered).

A far more important consideration than economic impacts is that seniors are our loved ones. They’re our parents, grandparents, teachers, neighbors, mentors, and friends. They have knowledge to impart, wisdom to share, and adventures to relive. Our lives are richer because of them; oftentimes our lives ARE because of them. We should be honoring, and not excluding, our seniors.

How do we keep seniors in Alaska?

According to Aging and Urbanization: Principles for Creating Sustainable, Growth-Oriented and Age-Friendly Cities, the four major principles to guide development for our senior population are:

Infrastructure and transportation to support the needs of all generations

Housing options to allow for aging in place

Access to senior focused community health programs

Opportunities for continuing work, education, arts and recreation for all ages

Equally important as affordable housing, access to healthcare and reliable transportation services are intangible issues, like how our communities consider seniors. Denise Daniello, Executive Director for the Alaska Commission on Aging, says “Viewing older adults as a great resource, an asset, rather than as a liability is an important step for creating meaningful opportunities that actively engage Alaska seniors and baby boomers to use their talents and improve community life – so that we may all benefit from their life experience dividend.”

Some organizations in the Lower 48 are capitalizing on the concept of seniors as assets and are utilizing a multigenerational approach as part of their business model. For example, ONEgeneration in Van Nuys, California provides adult daycare and childcare in a shared setting. This intergenerational approach gives connects children with diverse role models, provides seniors with a sense of purpose, and creates new community connections. In Chicago, Illinois college students and seniors share a three story building with six apartments housing multiple generations. The young residents cook, clean, and care for their senior roommates in exchange for rent. Considering that many young students struggle to make ends meet, and many seniors are facing social isolation or are in need of a little extra help, it seems like an ingenious solution to what can be a fairly complex or burdensomely expensive problem.

Here to stay

I always smile when I see a group of retirees at my weekly pre-work coffee date. They gather at New Sagaya’s City Market after picking up garbage around the neighborhood and are easily the liveliest group there at 7:30 AM. I’ve known a couple of them my entire life; others, since I was in high school. And I know for sure that they’re not going to live anywhere but here. Let’s make sure that they have the best possible Alaska to live in, and when it’s our turn to retire, we do too.

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