May 1, 2009 — Virginia's aging population will present many challenges, particularly due to a diversity of health and economic needs. But an increase in the ranks of the elderly also offers great potential for improving community life, according to an analysis in the Virginia News Letter, published by the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
Rural communities in particular will face challenges because of generally higher rates of poverty and difficulty in providing adequate services, according to Qian Cai, the center's demographics director, who authored the analysis.
State and local policymakers should strongly consider targeting resources to elderly populations in greatest need, she said. Foremost in need now and in the near future are elderly women, who are more likely to be poor and to live alone.
By 2030, the number of Virginians ages 65 and older are expected to double, from 900,000 to 1.8 million, and boost their percentage of the overall population from 12 percent to 19 percent, according to the study, "Virginia's Diverse and Growing Older Population."
An aging population such as Virginia and the nation face is not necessarily a liability, Cai emphasized. Many whom demographers are calling the "young-old" — those between the ages of 65 and 84 — may stay active in the workforce and compensate for a decrease in the proportion of younger Virginians in coming years, she said.
And older Virginians at any age can be valuable assets to their families and communities. "As Virginians age and remain in their home communities, they provide continuity – and living memory – of the history and identity of the region and of Virginia. They embody workplace skills developed over a lifetime," Cai wrote.
An increasing number of older Virginians are likely to become "community pioneers, exploring the territory of making our communities livable and sustainable for all residents," she wrote.
The aging population will also have major needs, she warned. There will be increased demands on Social Security and pension systems, health care and insurance, public transportation and housing. The greatest needs will be among the "old-old," those 85 and above.
Because rural seniors tend to be older and poorer, they often have more health problems, are more likely to live alone and have a greater need for social services. At the same time, providing health care and other service in rural areas is more difficult because of distances, sparse settlement patterns and lower financial capacity of rural governments.
Furthermore, not all rural areas will have the same needs. Some popular retirement areas will have more affluent populations than areas depending on declining industries such as farming, mining or manufacturing.
Each locality or region will need to examine its own situation carefully in designing its programs, Cai stressed.
Good public policy will require an understanding of the diversity of Virginia's older population in terms of age, gender, socio-economic status and geographic distribution, she said. The aging of the Baby Boomer generation will only magnify this diversity. Strategic planning and informed decision-making will be essential with the coming demographic changes.
Other key facts she presents in the study:
• The senior population will have vastly different levels of needs, abilities and resources. The oldest seniors are more likely to live in poverty, to be less-educated and to have more health problems.
• Elderly women significantly outnumber elderly men. Among those 85 and older, the ratio is more than two to one. Women are more likely to be widowed and to live alone and in poverty.
• As the Baby Boomer generation ages, the gap between male and female life expectancy is expected to narrow as a result of health advances. Women of that generation are also better educated than in the past and will be less likely to live in poverty.
• Some 70 percent of Virginia's seniors today live in metro areas, especially Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond. But the localities with the highest proportion of seniors tend to be rural localities, as young people have left or retirees have moved in.