As Boomers Age

Encouraging signs and red flags appear among Allegheny County’s rising senior population
Jim Kudis As Boomers Age
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In a few decades, the rest of America will be as gray as Allegheny County, which not long ago stood as one of the oldest counties in the nation. But it won’t be due to a local surge of youth. Aging Baby Boomers, in fact, are driving the county’s older adult population to new heights. America’s senior population is growing at a much faster pace than the county’s. And when the nation finally catches up, more than one in five Americans will have reached age 65 or beyond — a demographic certainty likely to have profound implications for families, the economy, health care and government.

Who are these older adults in Allegheny County who are growing in number and influence?

Most have lived in the county for a long time and are more likely than older adults in the rest of the country to age in place, according to a new report drawn from the most comprehensive survey ever done of seniors in any U.S. county.

They’re less likely to be poor and more likely to be confident they can afford to live comfortably in retirement than seniors elsewhere. And their contributions to the local economy are anything but negligible, even though most have retired. Nearly $6.8 billion in Medicare and Social Security dollars alone flow into the county each year through these older residents.

But a striking number of them are overweight or obese. Disparities find African Americans, in particular, far more likely to experience poor health outcomes, housing conditions and financial concerns.

And a gathering storm is apparent in forecasts of a rapidly shrinking pool of younger family members, friends and others whose help is critical to caring for a growing elderly population.

The big question looming in our future is how are we going to enable this generation — the Baby Boomers — to stay in their homes rather than being institutionalized,” says Richard Schulz, director of the University of Pittsburgh University Center for Social and Urban Research (UCSUR) and of the university’s Gerontology Program.

The report, published by UCSUR and Pittsburgh Today, is based on survey responses, U.S. Census Bureau data and other sources. Most key findings come from an UCSUR/​Pittsburgh Today telephone survey of 1,049 Allegheny County residents aged 55 years and older. Researchers also “over-​sampled” to gain a more precise representation of the conditions of older African Americans.

Allegheny County’s senior population is among the most heavily studied in the nation. An estimated one in four have taken part in University of Pittsburgh studies alone in the 30 years since traumatic economic upheaval made it clear that Allegheny County would age much differently than the rest of America.

On the rise, again

Economic misfortune has shaken few regions as severely as southwestern Pennsylvania in the 1980s, when the collapse of its steel industry triggered a catastrophic loss of jobs and a short-​lived, but substantial exodus of families. At its peak in 1984, an estimated 50,000 residents left and more than 70 percent of them were under the age of 39.

The loss of young adults, their families and future children turned the region older immediately and left a demographic hole that would take generations to fill. By 1995, the population of older adults in Allegheny County stood at 18 percent, keeping it close to or at the top of the list of the oldest U.S. counties before it began to trend modestly downward in the last decade.

Today, the county’s population of older adults is rising again, driven by the aging of more Baby Boomers. But it’s doing so much more slowly than the rest of America. And when 2040 arrives, the percentage of seniors in Allegheny County should mirror that of the nation for the first time in 80 years, demographic modeling suggests.

By then, adults 65 and older will account for 21 percent of Allegheny County’s population. And the number of older adults who live to celebrate their 100th birthday is projected to surpass 1,000.

Deep roots and few snowbirds

Adults 65 and older already account for at least 20 percent of the population in a quarter of the 130 Allegheny County municipalities. None boasts a higher share than Aleppo, the tiny township along the Ohio River where a whopping 54 percent of the citizens are retirement age or older.

Few are new arrivals. In 2012, only 1.4 percent of Allegheny County seniors had lived elsewhere a year earlier, which is about half the national migration rate among seniors. What Allegheny County has is an older population who can be counted on to stay put. Nearly 96 percent spent at least the past 10 years in the county and only 4.4 percent plan on leaving the region for warmer climates or other destinations.

High homeownership rates help to keep seniors rooted here. Most own the homes they live in and are happy with the condition of those homes, although ownership predictably drops with age. About 81 percent of all seniors aged 6574 years own their home compared to 61.5 percent of those 85 or older.

Another reason they stay is that they simply like southwestern Pennsylvania. A solid 9 in 10 of those aged 65 or older rate the region highly as a place for seniors to live.

Set for retirement

One of the legacies of southwestern Pennsylvania’s industrial past is the pensions that had been a staple of worker compensation when unions were strong and corporations such as U.S. Steel and Westinghouse were at the height of their power. Those days are gone. But many of the pensions remain and are among the key reasons why Allegheny County seniors are among the most likely in the nation to enjoy financial security during retirement.

Other reasons include some of the characteristics of southwestern Pennsylvania that help rank it as one of the most livable regions in the country, such as relatively lower housing costs and a favorable overall cost of living.

Survey data find Allegheny County retirees consistently more confident than U.S. retirees in their ability to pay basic living and medical expenses and long-​term care costs and also to live in relative comfort during their retirement. Debt is also less of a concern. Fewer than 10 percent of county retirees report having a major problem with debt — an issue for 16 percent of retirees nationwide.

And poverty among Allegheny County seniors has remained below the national rate for decades. In 2012, poverty touched 7.8 percent of the county’s seniors compared to 9.5 percent nationwide.

Whether future generations of retirees will enjoy similar financial circumstances is unclear. But factors such as recession-​related damage to incomes and retirement savings and the elimination of traditional pensions from employee benefit packages may pose challenges.

Older adults in the county have the benefit of having pensions that are generally higher than the national average,” Schulz says. “We’re already seeing that the younger generation — aged 55 to 64 — are less sure about their financial future. People are staying in the workforce longer.”

Disparities

Wide gaps separate older adults of different races and genders in measures important to their well-​being in Allegheny County. And nowhere are the gaps more apparent than in measures of their financial situations. Older African Americans in the county are much more likely to have household incomes below $15,000 than other races and less likely to enjoy incomes of $30,000 and up. African American men are three times more likely than whites to live in poverty. Older women of all races are more likely than men to live in poverty. And the 21 percent poverty rate among African American women aged 75 years or older is the highest of any group of county seniors.

It’s not surprising, then, that far fewer older African Americans than whites express confidence in their ability to meet the financial requirements of retirement. Nearly 47 percent of seniors who are white, for example, are very confident they’ll be able to cover basic expenses — a level of confidence shared by less than 25 percent of local African American seniors.

Overweight and at risk

Several health-​related measures among older Allegheny County adults show rates similar to national averages, such as the percentage of those who need help with routine or personal care. One glaring exception is being overweight or obese. About three in four county seniors are either one or the other, placing them at greater risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other serious conditions.

Overall, 31.5 percent of older county adults are obese and more than 43 percent are considered overweight by their body mass index. Obesity rates rise to 43 percent among older African Americans, compared to 30 percent among whites, and are significantly higher among women of all races than men. Obesity tends, however, to decrease with age.

And so do rates of depression among seniors. About 10 percent of adults aged 55 and up have moderate-​to-​severe symptoms of depression with those symptoms being more prevalent among African Americans than whites, the survey suggests. But depression rates drop from 14 percent among adults aged 5564 to 6.6 percent among seniors 75 years and older. The lower rate of depression among the elderly is a national, age-​related phenomenon. Reasons include waning stress as they move farther from their days in the workforce and raising children. Older adults are also known to adapt well to the constraints they have to live under and tend to have a level of equanimity about life and how to go about living that helps protect them against depression. Perhaps that also contributes to their relative happiness. Allegheny County seniors post a mean score of 8 on a 10-​point happiness scale that, while similar to the national average, is favorably high. Although African Americans generally do less well on several measures of well-​being, they are happier than whites. And older women are generally happier than men.

A shrinking caregiver network

Family, friends and neighbors play a critical role in enabling older adults to live safely at home and avoid nursing home or personal care home placement for as long as possible; this is particularly true with seniors with chronic illness and disability. But data suggest that demand for such informal care is quickly overtaking the capacity of younger generations to provide it.

One measure of that is the “dependency ratio” of the number of people available to provide care and those who need it. In 2010, the ratio was 6:1 in Allegheny County. By 2050, it’s projected to collapse to 3.6 caregivers for every person in need of care.

While the measure counts both seniors and children as those who need care, the growing senior population is clearly responsible for narrowing the ratio of caregivers to dependents so sharply, Schulz says. “That’s a very significant shift. What’s driving it is the lower number of children the Baby Boomers had — and a large number of Baby Boomers.”

For more information about the Pittsburgh Today project, and for other reports on the state of our region, please visit www​.pitts​burghto​day​.org.


Jeffery Fraser

Jeffery is a Pittsburgh-​based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Pittsburgh Quarterly. In his past life, he was a reporter and editor for newpapers large and small, only one of which is still in business. His magazine and newspaper reporting has won numerous awards.

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