Reporting should include questions about demographics, state plans on aging

Judith Graham

About Judith Graham

Judith Graham (@judith_graham), is a freelance journalist based in Denver and former topic leader on aging for AHCJ. She haswritten for the New York Times, Kaiser Health News, the Washington Post, the Journal of the American Medical Association, STAT News, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications.

It’s hard to imagine a better statistical portrait of a state’s aging population than one available at a new website created by the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University.

It’s a fascinating look at Ohio’s demographic present and recent past and a provocative peek into its potential future.

Core Topics
Health Reform
Aging
Other Topics

One section documents the accelerating graying of this Rust Belt state over the past 20 years: It features comprehensive data about residents 65 and older for each of Ohio’s 88 counties for 1990, 2000, and 2010. (Click on the 65+ bar beneath the banner on the top.)

As expected, there’s considerable variability among the counties, with some reporting significant gains in their senior population over the 20-year period (as high as 83 percent) and others reporting declines of up to 10 percent.

Leading the latter group is Cuyahoga county (home to Cleveland), which has seen a reduction in its total population and elderly residents over the past several decades. But look at the data and an exception becomes apparent – the number of people 85 and older is rising in the area (from 20,510 in 1990 to 33,421 in 2010).

This detail is significant because this oldest-of-the-old group is most likely to be frail, in poor health and in need of services such as caregiving, home health, nursing home, or home and community-based care.

Turn to another section of the Scripps website, and you’ll find the future coming into focus with projections for Ohio’s 60-plus population for 2020, 2030, 2040 and 2050. (Click on the option on the home page for the site called “County maps.” The data is displayed on a state map, county by county.)

There, data suggests that older adults will account for at least one-third of the population in 16 Ohio counties by 2050. In 2010, no counties met that threshold. That’s news and, when Scripps launched the site earlier this week, predictably it received some coverage. (See a brief story from the Associated Press here and another from the Dayton Daily News here.)

Shahla Mehdizadeh, director of research for the Ohio Long-Term Care Research Project at Scripps, told the Dayton paper that as jobs become hard to find, older adults put off retirement and young people leave the state in search of economic opportunities elsewhere, a vicious cycle comes into play.

“The state is in the position where its revenue is shrinking, but its obligation to the (elderly) population is going to gradually increase.”

Fine and well, you may be thinking, but I don’t live in Ohio, I don’t report about Ohio, and why should I care?

The answer is that reporters in every state should be asking the kinds of questions that the Scripps website for Ohio addresses. Where’s the aging population expanding? Why? What are governments in those areas doing in response, at what cost and with what kind of financing? If they’re not doing anything, why not and what are the consequences?

If you’re wondering about the picture in your state, ask your state Department of Aging if it has done a county-by-county analysis. If the answer is no, don’t stop there. Ask for a copy of your state’s plan on aging, such as this plan produced by the state of Maryland for 2009 through 2012. These state plans tend to be chock full of information about programs and demographic trends and other interesting facts. Find out when the next aging plan is due (Maryland is producing a new one, and has been holding hearings across the state) and which parts of that plan are generating the most heated discussion and controversy.

Another state with a new proposed plan on aging is Illinois, my former stomping ground. You can read the Illinois plan here. Illinois’ experience holds another important lesson for reporters: No matter what documents say, if the money isn’t there it doesn’t matter. Faced with an enormous budget deficit, Illinois has been cutting back on services and benefits to seniors in a crisis-driven, not planning-driven manner.

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.

Among other states circulating new proposed aging plans are South Carolina (see its 2013-17 draft plan here) and Pennsylvania (click here for the draft plan and a list of hearings).

Also, try getting in touch with your state demographer’s office and see what resources they might have available. In my experience, this is an under-utilized, valuable source of information. If nothing else, your state demographer (or a helpful gerontologist or demographer at a local university) might be able to help you make sense of Census data about older adults – another key source of information but one that few reporters have time to analyze on their own in great depth. (See this brief from the Census Bureau for more information. AHCJ’s tip sheet on “Using Census data for health reporting” also provides guidance.)

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