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Texas faces silver tide

Profile image for By John D. Harden / Staff Writer
By John D. Harden / Staff Writer

Some fear resources may not keep pace with senior population

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Denton resident C.J. Strayhorn was advised to retire by a doctor about two years ago because of a medical condition.

At 70 years old and unprepared for retirement, Strayhorn and his wife watched as their $3,000-plus monthly income was slashed by more than half. He received assistance from several state agencies, but the help was limited.

“A few helped pay a bill here and a bill there, but they’re also helping others in need, too,” Strayhorn said.

He said he and his wife were weeks away from losing their home.

“Paying the bills became difficult,” said Strayhorn, who visits a doctor at least once a month for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an illness that affects breathing.

But help came when Texas Adult Protective Services officials encouraged Strayhorn to join the Foster Grandparent Program, a governmental program.

The program allows income-eligible seniors a chance to work with at-risk children and provides a tax-free stipend.

Strayhorn earns $2.65 an hour through the program.

“It’s not much,” he said. “But the extra $300 goes a long way.”

Foster grandparenting and other programs are helping seniors in the county and country.

But officials are worried that such programs are at risk. The 65-and-older group that depends on these programs is the fastest-growing segment of the population, and regional officials and experts say they believe resources aren’t growing fast enough.

Some experts said they believe the state has no choice but to invest more in services that support seniors.

“It’s a difficult situation,” said Doni Green, director of the North Central Texas Area Agency on Aging. “It’s a wonderful thing to grow old, but what makes me nervous is wondering if we’re adequately prepared to handle the growth.”

The agency plans, coordinates and delivers services for older adults and caregivers. In carrying out its planning role, the agency sets a strategic direction for its services and shares information with communities to help them plan for the needs of older residents.

Texas has long been praised by the regional leaders as being one of the nation’s fastest-growing states, with North Texas as the epicenter, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

But with the growth comes challenges, Green said.


Population growth

About one in 14 Denton County residents is age 65 or older, according to census data.

The 65-and-older population has more than doubled since 2000, and regional officials don’t expect the rate to slow down.

Denton County showed 32,082 people older than 65 among its residents in 2000. By 2010, the number more than doubled, census data shows.

By 2023, the 65-and-older population is expected to top 179,000, according to data from the North Central Texas Area Agency on Aging.

“In 2023, not even 10 years later, the group will add an additional 81,000 people,” Green said.

Most of the growth is occurring in the Denton, Lake Cities and Lewisville areas, census data shows.

“The 65-and-over club in Texas has the largest percentage [of growth] in the country,” Green said. “It’s dramatic growth. And it’s not just in the region but also the nation.”

In the 1990s, baby boomers were in their economically productive years and represented nearly one-third of the U.S. population, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce report.

The first wave of baby boomers began turning 65 in 2011, and officials now see a rapid growth in the senior population.

With advancement in medicine and medical treatment, people are living longer, according to the Commerce Department report. Just as the baby boomer generation had an impact on the educational system and the labor market, it also could strain services and programs needed by the senior population, officials say.

By 2030, the federal government estimates there will be 91 million Americans age 60 and older. And Texas will be the home of a projected 6.7 million of those seniors, more than doubling the number from 2010. Of that number, nearly 1 million are expected to be 85 or older.


The disconnect

For the first time, the North Central Texas Area Agency on Aging is having its budget reduced going into its next fiscal year. It’s a trend that has hit many state agencies, including those that cater to the elderly and disabled.

“Our planning figures are $6.4 million in federal and state funds for our aging programs,” Green said. “That represents a reduction of $646,780 from last year’s funding.”

As the 65-and-older crowd continues to increase, she worries resources will either flatline or shrink even further.

Green said there is a disconnect between the demands of the senior population and the resources her agency has to provide.

“We’re affected by the sequester, the economy and health care legislation,” she said. “More than six months into our current fiscal year, we don’t know what our actual budget is.”

Green said the disconnect is creating problems for seniors to get the help they need and support themselves after retirement. She noted that the issue also affects families of seniors.

“Our budgets should not be decreasing,” she said.

Texas’ Department of Aging and Disability Services reported that its budget of more than $6 billion has also been affected by cuts. For the last two years, state agencies have been required to trim operating budgets by means ranging from hiring freezes to no new programs or services for the current fiscal year, the department reported.

In a report to the Texas Legislature prior to the 83rd legislative session, the department said it had trimmed personnel and had funding reduced. The department requested additional funding, but not at the level it operated at in 2010-11. Since 2010, the agency’s budget has shrunk to about $500 million.


Lifestyle change

Strayhorn and his wife have three children, but he said they can’t help much.

“They have their own families to raise and can’t afford to take care of us,” he said. “They live paycheck to paycheck, too.”

Green said one reason seniors struggle is because they aren’t prepared for life after retirement, and neither are their children or any supporting family members.

“One of the misimpressions is that people think they can be reimbursed by Medicare if they are caring for an older family member,” she said. “But family members are often disappointed that they aren’t actually compensated for their work, time taken off of work, or even unemployment.”

Older adults who had relied on steady gains in the stock market to finance their retirement have had to re-enter the workforce or slash expenses.

With growing frequency, older adults and caregivers who’ve relied on employment income have had to confront unemployment.

As seniors lose employment and retirement incomes, they encounter economic need — sometimes for the first time in their lives, Green said.

Wilma Carroll, 82, lives at Denton Good Samaritan Village, a community for seniors operated by the Good Samaritan Society.

For those who can afford to stay there, it allows seniors to retain their independence. But Carroll said she’s seen many of her friends and close neighbors struggle.

“It’s expensive to live here,” she said. “And it’s hard growing older because we’re used to our independence. We don’t want to give that up.”

Strayhorn, who works about 35 hours a week as a foster grandparent, said the program has given him a reason to keep living.

“When you retire and you’re struggling to make ends meet, you start to feel worthless and you start to feel like no one cares about you,” he said. “This program is giving me more than what I need, and I hope more people like me can find a program like this.”


Legislative response

The issues the state faces regarding the growing elderly population caught the attention of lawmakers in Austin during the recent legislative session.

Legislators filed several bills seeking to provide relief for senior residents. However, many of those bills never made it to the governor’s desk, according to a Texas Legislature report.

Some of the bills that stalled included legislation that would have exempted seniors from certain fees and given some seniors tax breaks.

According to a legislative report on aging, Texas has the largest rural population in the nation, and urban areas of the state are experiencing a higher rate of population growth than in rural areas.

Texas Silver Haired Legislature officials have been closely monitoring the legislative session. The nonprofit group advocates on issues affecting older adults in the state, said Betty Lee Streckfuss, the organization’s speaker pro tem.

“Sometimes the members feel discouraged and believe that the state Legislature and members of Congress are not listening or watching the senior population very carefully,” she said.

However, Streckfuss said there has been success during this legislative session.

“All said, collectively, we have a feeling of a job well done. There are several bills that did not pass that we will visit again and again,” she said. “Seniors are tenacious but wise. Time is our only enemy. But as we fade away, 100 others will take our place. Better health care, housing, transportation and tax shelters will become reality. History will speak for our efforts.”

James Swan, a professor of applied gerontology at the University of North Texas, said Denton County and the nation face some new challenges and some old ones regarding the growing elderly population.

“We have new demographics,” he said. “Years ago, we didn’t have grandparents raising grandchildren, and we didn’t have children caring for parents for as long as they are now.”

Swan has studied geriatrics since 1977. In that time, he said, there has been optimism about the federal government taking care of seniors.

“We had a perception that things were getting better. They were,” he said. “But just as we had our success, there have been problems. We didn’t think ahead about the problems we’re seeing today.”

The Texas Department on Aging and Disability Services reported that the state faces a shortage of direct-service workforce members for community-based services, which will threaten the independence of frail or older at-risk residents, especially in rural areas.

Finding ways to reverse the critical shortage will be one of the many issues facing Texas policymakers and providers of long-term services and support, the department reported.

In 1990, an estimated 11 potential caregivers were available for each individual needing care. By 2050, the expectation is for the ratio to fall to 4 to 1, according to the department’s report.

Green said the decreases in the proportion of caregivers across Texas will have a negative impact on how prepared the state will be in the future.

“As people grow older, they need more help,” she said. “Unfortunately, personnel is the most costly expense, and usually it’s the first to get cut.”

The availability of caregivers will continue to affect community-based services that help older residents remain at home as long as possible, according to the report.

“The government has to do something,” Swan said. “The state has to put money into its seniors. It’s that simple. It’s either that, or watch the state struggle.”

JOHN D. HARDEN can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @JDHarden.