Monday, May 21, 2001

Bluegrass State grows gray

Census warns elderly will strain budget

By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — The latest load of data from the Census Bureau shows a monster wave gathering strength and speed on the not-too-distant horizon.

        This is a human wave, nearly 1 million Kentuckians of at least middle age or nearing retirement age. The wave will come crashing ashore in another decade, testing the state's capacity to serve a rapidly growing elderly population and further taxing its already strained Medicaid program.

        According to the 2000 Census, nearly one Kentuckian in four fell into the 45-64 age range, a 32 percent increase from 1990. Most of them — precisely 556,932 — were ages 45 to 54. They collectively posted a 45 percent growth rate, nearly three times larger than the second-fastest growing age group, 75-plus.

        “The data tell me it's the middle aging of Kentucky. We've got a lot of people in their maturing years,” said Ron Crouch, director of the Kentucky State Data Center at the University of Louisville.

        That's not entirely bad. Dramatic growth among people in their prime earning and spending years means “the economy should be booming right now,” Mr. Crouch said, and indeed it has been.

        But he frets about the young generations trailing behind. In all age groups from birth to 34, Kentucky had lower total numbers in 2000 than in 1990 or even in 1980. Those are the folks who presumably will have to pay the freight when today's middle aged, the products of the last baby boom, become tomorrow's elderly and infirm.

        This is not a sudden phenomenon. The census merely provided numbers to put with a trend that's been unmistakable.

        “It is not surprising to people,” said Jerry Whitley, director of the state Office of Aging Services. “It is creating a lot of discussion. How do we change with the numbers? How do you do it with the resources you have?”

        It certainly has been discussed in the General Assembly, which for years has taken up issues of the elderly, including long-term care and services to enable older people to live independently for longer times.

        Mr. Whitley's agency is itself evidence of that discussion. It began as a lowly division of what is now the Cabinet for Health Services. Gov. Paul Patton elevated it to office status, bumping it higher in the bureaucratic food chain, the better with which to compete for funding.

        Mr. Whitley said the boomers who are nearing retirement age and beyond will be better educat ed, healthier, accustomed to civic involvement and otherwise being productive, he said.

        But he would be concerned about the elderly in poverty and those living alone, Mr. Whitley said. Census figures also showed that about one householder in 10 was a person 65 or older, living alone. Many did so by choice, no doubt. “But if you're growing old alone, obviously you don't have the support system in place to help you. You may need more public support,” Mr. Whitley said.

        In addition, most caregivers for the elderly are family members. If that is to continue, the caregivers also will need more support and understanding, he said.

        Employers learned long ago about child care and its importance to employees. They soon will have lots of employees faced with the similar issue of elder care, Mr. Whitley predicted.

        The discussion seems always to end in a question. Long-term care obviously is going to continue to be an increasing need,” he said. “And the public funding: How's that going to be paid for?”

        Charles Wolfe is a statehouse reporter for The Associated Press.


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