Utah County has driven the state of Utah’s economy for a few years now, and according to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, over the next 50 years Utah County will experience the majority of another kind of growth: population growth. Utah County is projected to have the largest numeric increase in population, according to the institute, adding over one million new residents by 2065.
Although it seems like most of the growth would come from in-migration and births, there’s another Utah demographic that the institute reported will more than double over the next 50 years: baby boomers, or the population of residents 65 and older. Predictions from the institute indicate Utah’s elderly population will rise from 10.2% of the whole population to 20.3% in 2065. Utah’s median age will also see an increase from 30.7 years to 38.3 years.
A greater aging population will affect housing design and affordability, health care and recreation, the local workforce and economy. Here is what some experts say about preparing for that future now.
Housing — affordability, design, social aspects
Rob Ence, executive director for the Utah Commission on Aging, described affordable housing as a “critical issue” for people 55-plus. People age 55 and older, Ence said, deal with a wide range of challenges and circumstances — from homelessness to people who can afford to live wherever they want, to groups in between who are being “gently squeezed” out of home affordability.
The affordable housing crisis for older people will only become more critical in the future, Ence said, and needs to be a focus now. One of the important aspects of affordable housing geared towards older generations is its age-friendly design.
“Age-friendly design (is) where a person of any age can live in a home and have access to the right kind of spaces between doors, counter level heights, access to appliances, light switches, power plugs, safety rails where needed,” Ence said. “All of those kinds of things become more important as a person is older and has to deal with the challenges of balancing and just general mobility.”
Beyond the design of a home, Ence emphasized the importance of accessibility to needed services, such as transportation, medical care, food, and a sociable community.
“Social isolation is one of the greatest health risks we face going forward,” Ence said. “The communities we think of in the future as people get older, we want to make sure we find ways to prevent and watch our for circumstances of social isolation. That we keep connected with each other.”
Already there are a handful of communities in Utah with homes designed for an older population. Chris Gamvroulas, president of Ivory Development at Ivory Homes, said the size of Ivory Home’s communities simply depends on the project. For example, a community in Lehi holds about 220 homes, whereas a Lindon community holds 63, and an Orem community holds just 30. The needs of an older population when it comes to resources, Gamvroulas said, play heavily into the design of these types of communities, which Ivory Homes has built or is building up and down the Wasatch Front.
“We try to be very thoughtful about where they’re placed,” he said. “We really believe that with the aging demographic ... these lifestyle choices and housing choices, there’s opportunities everywhere for them.”
In age-targeted and age-restricted communities like the ones developed by Ivory Homes, Gamvroulas said the homes are typically smaller, so utilities cost less and there are often fully maintained yards. House designs, if they are more than one story, still have all necessities on the first floor so residents don’t have to climb stairs often, and generally the communities have some kind of “lifestyle programming.”
“There are a lot of social reasons to be in those communities,” Gamvroulas said.
As a side benefit, as older people move into these newer communities that require less upkeep, it makes way for younger people or families to move into the homes they vacate.
“It opens up existing inventory that wouldn’t otherwise be available,” Gamvroulas said.
As the popularity of age-targeted and age-restricted communities rises, the popularity of assisted-living centers isn’t necessarily seeing the same kind of growth. According to Rebecca Landau, a consultant for Summerfield retirement, many assisted living centers have an overabundance of beds.
“It’s extremely competitive,” Landau said.
Besides their housing, the activities of people reaching traditional “retirement age” are changing as well — many are choosing to return to the workforce, either part-time, or to start second careers, which is good for the economy but may present different challenges for employers.
Retirees in the workforce
“A significant portion of the over 65 population who had retired have gone back to work,” Ence said. “No. 1 reason is they economically have to. They don’t have enough resources to survive or maintain a standard of living.”
But for some retirees, going back to work or diving into volunteerism is just a way to stay active.
“Another reason is that people just do it because they have something to offer,” Ence said. “They don’t want to be idle.”
Retirees looking to enter the workforce may come up against discrimination, but Ence and Susan Hornbuckle, vice president of customer and talent engagement at Kelly Services, said age discrimination is an unfair bias.
“Just because you’re 65, doesn’t mean you’re less capable,” Ence said. “In some cases, you may be more capable, depending on the task.”
Both Ence and Hornbuckle urge employers to look past age and look for potential retirees to simply demonstrate competency.
“There’s a work ethic that exists among that (65 and older) group that we don’t see as often today,” Hornbuckle said. “That alone brings a tremendous amount of value.”
With Utah County’s tight labor market, Hornbuckle added, employers don’t really have a choice if they need to augment their staffing needs. One think employers might fear is whether or not their older employees will integrate well with technology — but Hornbuckle said in general, she hasn’t seen any problems because of a gap in knowledge or technology usage when it comes to bringing older people back into the workplace. Hornbuckle said she also hasn’t seen any issues when it comes to integrating older workers in with other, younger employees, even management.
“They’re not disconnected from the younger generations like we assume that they are,” Hornbuckle said. “Remember, they have children and grandchildren that are in those younger generations so they’ve had to learn to live with and connect with, live and work with other generations in a social setting or in a family setting. It’s not exactly foreign to them.”
The one challenge employers do face, Hornbuckle said, is getting job openings in front of retirees. She advises meeting them where they’re at.
“Go into the community,” Hornbuckle said. “Are they playing Bunco on Monday night at some community hall, or are they at a concert. Find where the group has lunches and then just be present in those places.”
Additional benefits, Hornbuckle said, include a more well-rounded workforce and a boost to the economy, where more people are earning wages that then are fed back into the community through their purchases.
“The effect that has, it’s just multi-beneficial,” she said. “Just about every employer that I’ve worked with or those that I’ve talked to, I can see benefits.”
Retirees’ well being
While it may not have the massive retirement communities like The Villages in Florida with their numerous golf courses, swimming pools and nightlife, or the welcoming beaches of Southern California, Utah has been ranked as one of the best states for older Americans to live in. That, in part, is due to the outdoor recreation opportunities and the many indoor activities afforded them by local senior centers.
Unlike days of yore, seniors of all retirement ages and financial statuses are utilizing civic senior centers at a growing rate.
“Seniors don’t want to be treated as seniors,” said Scott Henderson, director of the Provo Parks and Recreation Department. “We have 2,500 of 60 years-plus seniors, who are members of the overall rec center and are utilizing it just like the 20-year-olds. It is an amazing trend.”
Before the new recreation center was built, Provo had the aging Eldred Senior Center that was a detached building from any other form of recreation or activity. Henderson said over the past decade attendance at the Eldred Center was trending downward. With the senior center attached to the new rec center, the trend reversed itself almost immediately.
Lunch is offered every day and there are a myriad of dynamic senior programs to choose from, according to Alicia Christensen, program supervisor.
Christensen said she sees two generations of seniors. There are the older, slower seniors on lower or fixed incomes that come to the center for a meal and visiting — maybe a bingo game or craft. Then there are the younger seniors who are looking for life enrichment activities; their life is looking to the future and keeping lively and relevant in the community.
“We offer a lot of different needs and reach a lot of people,” Christensen said. “We are seeing more seniors participate in classes.”
In Provo, before the rec center there were up to 700 seniors with annual memberships at the Eldred Center with about 200 regulars. Now there are 2,500 pass holders and much of those passes are in some measure paid for by the senior’s insurance.
“We’ve grown all over the map,” Christensen said.
Gena Bertlesen, director of the Senior Friendship Center in Orem, said she has people coming in every week to check out the place and what they have to offer. Some say they are moving to Orem, others say they just recently moved here to be with kids and grandkids.
“Family seems to be the biggest motivator for seniors moving in,” Bertlesen said.
Bertlesen said when she started in 2012, there were 99 people on average attending daily. In 2018, there were 439 average daily attending. There are 3,500 on the rolls with 2,500 active seniors. That means they have signed up for meals, to take a class or take one of the many day trips offered.
“We have in Orem 15,000 seniors 55 and over. There are many more seniors that could enjoy our services.”
Bertlesen isn’t ashamed to say that while Provo has a greater population by about 20,000, the Orem Friendship Center has the greater and fastest growing senior center in the county.
Yearly memberships at the Senior Friendship Center are $10 a year; participants pay for meals, which are a nominal fee depending on the menu.
Bertlesen said that active seniors want to be sociable. Like Provo, Bertlesen said there are seniors who come for a good meal and to meet friends, some who are lower income folks, but they also have many seniors who could go to the country club but choose to be there.
“We have very wealthy people here,” Bertlesen said. “They take classes and want to be with people. Seniors who don’t check us out have no idea what they’re missing. It’s like the TV show ‘Cheers,’ we don’t have the bar but we have the smile. It’s where everybody knows your name.”
Bertlesen said the Friendship Center is there to add to the seniors’ quality of life.
“Social media is taking away that visiting we used to know,” Bertlesen said. “It’s of big importance hearing your name every day.”
She adds that one of the reasons why the center membership continues to grow is because people a living healthier and longer lives.
Aside from the large groups in Provo and Orem, there are other senior centers throughout the county with varying open hours and some are restricted to just a couple of days a week. There are currently senior centers in Lindon, Springville, American Fork, Spanish Fork, Pleasant Grove, Lehi, Payson, Goshen, Santaquin and Eagle Mountain.