Building Strategies to Address the "Silver Wave"

Is your community ready to address the needs of older adults, the fastest growing age group in the US?

It's the "Silver Wave"

Most communities are already seeing a growth in the percentage of older adults in their population. And this is just the beginning of a multi-decade trend that will reshape our population profile and our communities. Ken Dychtwald, an expert in the field of aging, has called this demographic trend the "Age Wave." And, popular culture has termed the trend the "Silver Tsunami." I call is the "Silver Wave."

Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of the country's population aged 65 and older grew by just over 15%, and is expected to grow even faster in the coming years. Within that group of older adults, the subgroup of the very old (85 and older) is growing faster than the group as a whole. Having a population that is older and more frail has significant implications for community services and resources.

According to the US Census Bureau, the states with the fastest growing older adult populations between 2000 and 2010 include:

  1. Alaska 53.9%
  2. Nevada 48.2%
  3. Idaho 33.4%
  4. Colorado 32.1%
  5. Arizona 32.0%
  6. Georgia 31.4%
  7. Utah 31.1%
  8. South Carolina 30.2%
  9. New Mexico 28.3%
  10. North Carolina 27.3%

It is estimated that, between 2000 and 2030, New Mexico, where I live, will move from being 39th to being 4th in the US in the ratio of older adults to the state's total population. There are many other states that are facing a similar situation, such as the states listed above. And, those states that have fast-growing older adult population coupled with a significant state budget difficulties are facing even greater challenges.

It is critical that communities begin now build strategies to address the "Silver Wave." Communities need to develop a plan for older adult services. Many of those retiring now do not have the base of assets that their parents, the WWII generation, built over the years. And, community services for older adults are already "maxed out" in many locales. Consider the impact of trying to serve many more people in another five, ten or twenty years.

Most communities are not prepared to respond effectively to the increasing level of older adult needs now, much less cope with an increased level of need that the future holds in store. And, because many states and municipalities are faced with budget challenges, community and state leaders need to be able to create plans that can leverage resources in new, more productive and innovative ways.

Building Strategies to Address the Silver Wave

Here are some things that most communities can and should be doing this year and over the coming years to be prepared for the Silver Wave.

  • Start or build upon your discussion among community leaders, and continue to develop interest and support for this issue.
  • Ensure that current and planned older adult needs, services, and gaps are included in all community plans, including health, housing, transportation, and economic development plans.
  • Engage community agencies, businesses, local government groups, initiatives, faith communities and civic groups in a discussion about the growing needs of older adults and involve these groups in discussing creative ways to develop and fund resources.
  • Develop your community plan, with goals for older adult services, priorities, implementation strategies, and a timeline.
  • Analyze a range of funding options for priority services, and build a funding plan that identifies a diversified base of revenues and leverages current community assets.

Involve the community in an ongoing discussion, while working with specific government offices, nonprofit agencies, foundations and expert groups. This will enable you to engage a large base of stakeholders, build interest and commitment, and develop more creative solutions. In my work as a community planning consultant, I've found that communities can develop effective plans and breakthrough solutions using a combination of research, discussions, simulation games and a group process that engages people in "out-of-the-box" thinking . It is this process that enables groups to focus on innovative ways to build services and funding. And communities find that this process will inform community stakeholders, and build support for strategies developed to address this very important demographic trend.