PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Communities across Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont face chilling and similar challenges as they grapple with rapidly aging populations, economic analysts warned Tuesday at the Tri-State Roundtable on Aging.
The three northern New England states have the nation’s oldest populations based on median age, according to the U.S. Census. Maine leads at 44 years, followed by Vermont at 42.5 years and New Hampshire at 42.3 years.
The region also has a dwindling younger population, so without significant intervention and policy changes, labor costs will rise, government agencies will falter and public education will suffer, the analysts listed among other problems.
“It is the age imbalance that is at the root of the issues we have to deal with,” said Charles Colgan, a former Maine state economist who is a professor at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine.
If northern New England were a country, Colgan said, it would rank among the top 10 percent of oldest nations in the world.
Colgan and other panelists noted that all three states face socioeconomic and demographic challenges that will require innovative solutions and broad community support – from business owners and investors to civic and volunteer groups.
“Where the elders are isn’t where the money is,” said Ken Jones, an economic research analyst with the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
Steve Norton, executive director of the New Hampshire Center of Public Policy Studies, noted that a dearth of two- and three-bedroom homes in his state is forcing young, first-time buyers to compete with empty-nesters who are downsizing.
New Hampshire’s growing senior population also foreshadows a need for 3,788 additional nursing home beds and 3,901 additional assisted-living beds by 2025, Norton said. But analysts agreed the region must invest in less expensive long-term care options, such as home health care.
More than 150 elder advocates and policymakers attended Tuesday’s daylong conference at the Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel. It’s the region’s first meeting to address the spectrum of challenges related to its aging population, including growing demand for elder housing, health care and long-term care options.
The conference was organized to promote regional partnerships and community-based programs to help older adults age in place, such as volunteer transportation networks and technology-based home health monitoring.
Among the participants were leaders of each state’s senior programs, including James Martin, director of Maine’s Office of Aging and Disability Services. But organizers acknowledged that state agencies can no longer be expected to shoulder the needs of an aging population.
“We’re really trying to bust out and make those partnerships with other entities,” said Jess Maurer, executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging and co-chairwoman of the Maine Council on Aging, which co-hosted the conference.
If successful, northern New England could become a national model for regional efforts to help seniors live independently longer, Maurer said.
Organizers anticipate holding similar meetings in the future, including gatherings to address individual aging-related topics, said Kelly Laflamme, program director at the Endowment for Health, a New Hampshire foundation that co-hosted the conference.
The keynote speaker Tuesday was Maine House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, who talked about recent efforts to address aging issues in his state. Maine’s situation is acute; it also has the nation’s highest proportion of baby boomers – 29 percent – and the second-highest proportion of people age 65 and older – 17.8 percent – following Florida’s 18.6 percent.
Eves and the Maine Council on Aging hosted a statewide summit in January that attracted more than 370 people and produced sweeping policy recommendations in a “Blueprint for Action on Aging.” Eves is now developing KeepME Home legislative proposals that would increase affordable housing options, property tax credits and home care services for seniors.
Eves said he hopes Maine legislators will set aside partisan politics to solve mounting problems. “We have an opportunity to lead the country,” Eves said. “I think this is an area we have incredible common ground on.”