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Aging Population Means New Suburban Challenges

By Jenn Hatch

According to an article by David Versel at George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis, the choices aging Baby Boomers in our region make about where to retire could mean profound impacts for local governments and social service organizations.

Though Boomers make up 26 percent of the region’s population, they represent 47 percent of the homeowners, and are mostly concentrated in the DC suburbs. If the majority of the area’s 1.5 million Boomers opt to “age in place,” as most hope to, Versel notes some key impacts on local communities:

Social Services for the Elderly — Boomers make up more than 50 percent of homeowning households in Calvert, Fairfax and Fauquier counties, and just under half in Montgomery, Stafford and Prince George’s counties. As the elderly population of these communities spikes, the demand for social services to accommodate these residents — from accessible transit programs and social work services to home health care and recreational programming — will swell. Communities that grew with a surge of new families decades ago will become “naturally occurring retirement communities” and now lack the infrastructure to meet these emerging needs.

Help for Limited Income Residents — Boomers living a fixed income of retirement savings and social security benefits will likely face a crunch as their health care costs rise with age. This adds urgency to provide accessible social services for low- or limited-income elderly residents such as energy assistance, affordable transportation, home health or social work services, and financial counseling, benefit and tax assistance. The article also notes that these homeowners won’t be able to maintain their investment in maintaining their homes, which has repercussions for attracting new buyers and maintaining public services in the future.

Transitioning After the Boomers — Communities facing this dramatic increase in their elderly population today will also experience another significant shift in 27-50 years as the Boomers’ reach ages 76-94. Versel notes that “at some point age and health will take their toll. If Boomers do intend to stay in their homes for the duration, their eventual departures from their homes and neighborhoods will likely occur under difficult circumstances. Most will either leave quickly due to health issues, or their surviving family members will need to sell their homes after they are gone.” This rapid change in demographics poses challenges for governments and social service groups alike — finding ways to meet the changing needs of local residents while striving to maintain sustainable, vibrant communities.

This pendulum swing of demographics over three to four decades will compound current suburban challenges including poverty and demand for social services. But as communities plan for and face these changes, it is also an opportunity to strengthen our region’s nonprofit network — from planning and working collaboratively to sharing expertise across organizations and coordinating diverse services — to best serve an ever-changing community.

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