Find out how demographic shifts affect the aging community in your area

Judith Graham

About Judith Graham

Judith Graham (@judith_graham), a Colorado-based freelancer, is AHCJ’s topic leader on aging, and as such curates related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on aging issue resources and tip sheets at judith@healthjournalism.org.

The population of people 65 and older is growing, but not equally across the United States.

Some cities are experiencing sharp increases in the number of older residents; in other areas, this group is expanding more slowly.

Judith GrahamJudith Graham (@judith_graham), AHCJ’s topic leader on aging, is writing blog posts, editing tip sheets and articles and gathering resources to help our members cover the many issues around our aging society.

If you have questions or suggestions for future resources on the topic, please send them to judith@healthjournalism.org.

These population trends are important because “the benefits and challenges of a growing senior population will hit each metro region differently,” notes John K. McIlwain, the J. Ronald Terwilliger chair for housing at the Urban Land Institute, in a recent article reprinted in The Atlantic Cities.

In urban areas with large numbers of seniors, health care and housing needs will be different in kind than in communities with a younger population. More programs that help people age in place will be important, as will access to services such as home health and custodial care, transportation, assisted living, and hospital, physician, and rehabilitative care.

Also, seniors are “more politically conservative, and what they want and need from a community is often quite different from what young families want and need,” McIlwain notes. “This is changing the local political climate in places where the growth of seniors is significant. Seniors are, for instance, pushing for more parks, open space, and libraries, often at the expense of funds for schools and playgrounds.”

The data McIlwain cites in his article is based on an analysis of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States and spans the period from 2000 to 2010, a decade divided by the housing boom that occurred in its first half and the housing bust/recession that dominated its second half.

During this period, urban areas with the fastest-growing older populations were Raleigh, N.C., Austin, Texas, and Las Vegas.

Rank Metro Area Percent Growth
1. Raleigh 60 percent
2. Austin 53 percent
3. Las Vegas 50 percent
4. Houston 39 percent
5. Dallas 38 percent
6. Charlotte 36 percent
7. Phoenix 33 percent
8. Denver 32 percent
9. Orlando 29 percent
10. Riverside 28 percent

New Orleans, hit by Hurricane Katrina, lost residents 65 and older, as did Pittsburgh, Penn., and Buffalo, N.Y.

Rank Metro Area Percent growth
1. St. Louis and New York City (tie) 7 percent
2. Detroit 6 percent
3. Milwaukee 4 percent
4. Tampa 4 percent
5. Philadelphia 4 percent
6. Providence 1 percent
7. Cleveland 1 percent
8. Buffalo -3 percent
9. Pittsburgh -5 percent
10. New Orleans -5 percent

The nation’s two largest cities topped the list of cities that gained the most older residents. But this number is less meaningful than growth rates, because these metropolises have enormous populations to begin with.

Rank Metro Area Number of New Seniors
1. Los Angeles 199,000
2. New York City 167,000
3. Dallas 153,000
4. Atlanta 147,000
5. Houston 144,000
6. Phoenix 129,000
7. Washington, D.C. 127,000
8. Riverside, California 98,000
9. Chicago 87,000
10. Minneapolis 69,000

It’s easy for you to compile similar data for your community: Look at Census Data for 2000 and 2010 and compare the 65-plus population in those years. For help doing that, this tip sheet by Frank Bass has tips on using Census data for health reporting.

If you want to dig in deeper, talk to your city’s planning department about projected growth in the senior population through 2020. Are planners studying what this population will need going forward and how to make your area more senior-friendly?

Ask local hospitals what portion of their business comes from Medicare and how they expect this segment of their business to grow. Are they undertaking any special efforts to appeal to the growing senior population?

Find out what senior housing operators are planning for your community. Are new assisted living centers or other types of housing being built? Are new services designed to help seniors age in place being offered?

Try to understand the costs associated with a growing older population. How will budget-strapped cities and counties handle this burden? What tradeoffs are entailed?

Finally, McIlwain wisely notes in his piece that the trends of the past decade won’t necessarily hold going forward. Clearly, economic woes have hit older adults hard and affected their retirement portfolios, their ability to sell homes, and their plans for the future. This, too, is a trend to watch as you keep an eye on the senior population in your community.