On Politics
4:59 pm
Fri March 8, 2013

The Silver Boom: Aging in Rhode Island

Rhode Island’s older population is on the rise, and in 20 years a quarter of the state’s population will be older than 60. All this week, we’re looking at the state’s older residents in a series we’re calling “The Silver Boom: Aging in Rhode Island.” RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay helps us kick off our series with a look at what this growing older population means for younger residents.

History tells us that Rhode Island is one of America’s oldest places, founded in the 17th Century by religious dissenters, most notably Roger Williams, who were chased out of Massachusetts by Puritan theocrats.

Twenty-first century Rhode Island is still steeped in history. But when we refer to the old these days, we are talking about Rhode Island’s aging population.

Just seven other states have a larger percentage of its citizens aged 60 or over, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Yet no other state has a big a population group of people aged 85 and up than Rhode Island.

What is happening, says state Elderly Affairs director Catherine Taylor, is that younger, more vital, retirees are leaving the state in the early years of their retirement. Then, when they get older and frail, they return to Rhode Island where they have families who can help care for them.

Census projections show that in less than two decades, one of every four Rhode Islanders will be aged 60 or more. The graying of Rhode Island has huge implications for our social, political, economic and medical institutions.

Can an economy that over the last few years has been bleeding jobs generate enough money to take care of our elderly citizens, especially those with fragile health? What happens when the educated young attend colleges in our state but flee the day they earn their degrees for the states with more robust job markets?

How do we balance the need to keep the elderly in their homes as long as possible with property taxes that are some of the nation’s most onerous on elderly people with fixed incomes?

What is the economic future of a state with a smaller workforce of younger people paying for  services needed by geezers in their autumn years?

Rhode Island’s tax policies chase younger retirees out of the state, Taylor says. This means we lose the financial and volunteer contributions of healthy retirees but must support frail elderly people in failing health who depend on taxpayer dollars for Medicare and Medicaid support.

Our state has relatively high estate and income taxes. So retirees leave to establish residency in such states as Florida, Texas or New Hampshire, where there are no income taxes. Then they return when they are very old and take advantage of  Rhode Island’s superior health care system and generous government medical and nursing home programs, as well as the state’s network of  senior citizen centers.

Through the prism of  Rhode Island’s stagnant economy of 2013, it seems foolhardy to think that without federal help that we and the other rapidly aging states of New England can afford the medical and social programs that will be needed in the future.

A mecca for the oldest and sickest elderly must have a strong economy and incentives for specialists in geriatric illness to practice in our state. There will inevitably be a need for more efforts to keep the elderly in their homes as long as possible because institutional care provided by nursing homes and assisted living centers is so expensive. Especially expensive is dealing with the needs of  those who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

There are some encouraging programs on the horizon, such as the Lifespan Caregiver Respite Program run by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, which establishes networks of volunteers to help people taking care of elderly family members in their homes. Community settings are seen nowadays as both cheaper and more effective at giving the elderly a better quality of life than the traditional end-of-life option of a nursing home. And home hospice care has become an alternative chosen by more elderly people than ending life in a hospital bed.

This week here at Rhode Island Public Radio we are exploring the issues of  the elderly in our series, `The Silver Boom: Aging in Rhode Island.’

The topics range from health care, to education, jobs, Social Security and the future holds for   our parents and grandparents. Listen this week as well roll out our Silver Boom series. And send your comments to our web site at RIPR.org. Even if you are young, you’ll want to tune in. That’s because in the Ocean State we all know that time and the tides wait for none of us.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org

Click here for more stories from our series The Silver Boom: Aging in Rhode Island 

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