September 11, 2013

Maine leaders warned of impact as state's population ages

'Radical rethinking' will be needed, an economist tells a Maine gathering taking a first step in developing solutions.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — A former state economist painted a bleak portrait of Maine's future Tuesday at a gathering to discuss the profound social, economic and cultural changes that will be caused by the rapid aging of the state's population.

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Maine's dependency ratio
The "dependency ratio" refers to the number of working-age adults divided by the number of non-working dependents. As Maine's retired population grows, this ratio is expected to shrink dramatically. Click below to explore an interactive chart showing how Maine's population is expected to age over the next 15 years.
 

aging chart thumbnail

 
Highlights and findings from ‘The Challenge of our Age’


Social Security is the only source of income for one-third of Mainers age 65 and older, and 10 percent of the state’s seniors are living at or below poverty level.

Maine seniors receive critical assistance from about 150,000 to 200,000 family and informal caregivers, but four out of five of these caregivers get little or no training and support.

Many seniors who need housing in Maine spend two to three years on local housing authority waiting lists before they get a place to live. Maine needs more than 8,000 affordable rental housing units for seniors by 2015, according to the Maine State Housing Authority.

Forty-three percent of Maine’s nursing homes and 41 percent of assisted-living facilities dependent on MaineCare need renovation or replacement.

More than 1,500 Maine seniors are on waiting lists for MaineCare-funded personal and home care services, and the situation is likely to get worse. State spending on home care actually decreased from $49 million to $47 million in the decade ending in 2010.

An estimated 34,000 Maine seniors are victims of physical, emotional or financial abuse or exploitation each year, according to the Maine Office of Aging and Disability Services. Most abusers are family members and caregivers, and about 84 percent of cases go unreported.

The lack of public transit or other transportation options in largely rural Maine means that 90 percent of seniors who don’t drive rely on family and friends to get food, health care and other basic needs.

Maine has no effective plan to deal with these and other problems posed by its growing senior population, and its political leadership has failed to take or even call for comprehensive, statewide action on issues that promise to affect every family and community.

Charles Colgan, an economist at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service, said labor costs will skyrocket if the state's leaders fail to entice more young people to move here.

"We are looking down the throat of a very different Maine," said Colgan, a former state economist. "No society has gone through what we're about to go through."

About 70 government and community leaders turned out for the first in a series of roundtable talks that will be led this fall by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, in hopes of producing legislative action next year.

Lawmakers and other state officials will confront powerful demographic forces that will demand fundamental changes in systems of health care, social services, transportation and caregiving.

Colgan said the situation "requires a radical rethinking of many of the things we are doing." He said institutions across the United States are "woefully ill-equipped" to overcome the inertia that has prevented real action so far.

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram is examining the impacts of the rapid aging of Maine's population in an ongoing special series, "The challenge of our age," which has found that the state isn't taking good care of its seniors now and isn't prepared for what's ahead.

Maine's median age -- 43.5 years -- is the highest in the United States, in part because the state has a dwindling younger population, according to the U.S. Census. The state's proportion of people age 65 and older -- 17 percent -- is second only to Florida's 18.2 percent.

Maine has the nation's highest proportion of baby boomers -- 29 percent of its 1.3 million residents were born in the period from 1946 to 1964 -- and they are turning 65 at a rate of 18,250 a year, according to AARP Maine.

By 2030, more than 25 percent of Mainers will be 65 or older, magnifying the already serious challenges facing seniors and their communities. That will put Maine on the crest of a worldwide aging trend that's already contributing to economic, social and political instability across the globe.

In Maine, the trend is exposing shortages in transportation, housing, health care, long-term care, family caregiver support and legal protections against elder abuse that threaten to cripple the state economically and socially if not addressed soon.

The impact on the job market and business community could be especially acute, Colgan said. Maine must attract 5,000 to 10,000 new workers annually through 2030 just to offset the number of baby boomers who are retiring each year.

"We've got to get young people to move to Maine," he said. "We have to do more than just keep our kids here. ... It's not enough (to replace people who are retiring) because not enough of them were born here."

If the state fails to attract enough young people, wages will rise as employers are forced to recruit workers from outside Maine, Colgan said.

"Rising wages must be offset by rising productivity or we'll become less competitive in the global marketplace," he said.

To stem the trend, Maine's workforce must be better educated and more skilled, and that burden cannot be left to the public education system alone, Colgan said.

(Continued on page 2)

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