Every day the population of the United States, including Texas, is getting older. This poses important challenges to Social Security, Medicare and a host of state and local programs. In fact, the Census Bureau recently announced that it projects there will be more older people than children in the United States by 2035. We can’t afford to wait 17 years to start thinking about changes that we need to make.
This new demographic and social reality gives us an opportunity to rethink how we adapt to an aging population in ways that benefit all age groups. Texans, as they have in the past, can innovate and set an example for others to follow.
Changes cannot depend on a few advocates for the elderly. Everyone must become aware of the issues. It takes people from different fields, different backgrounds and different age groups to offer solutions that truly change the way we as a society treat the aging process.
And seniors aren’t the only ones who benefit from effective policies on aging. Younger generations will age and eventually benefit from positive aging policies. But younger generations can reap the benefits today.
In 2013, approximately 40 million family caregivers in our country provided uncompensated care that according to the AARP had an estimated worth of about $470 billion. Improvements in effective care for seniors clearly benefits family members who are at risk of caregiver burnout if they must provide care to an aging relative without outside help. By taking some of the burden of care off families, we can put much of this time back into the economy to help keep Texas thriving.
We also have a chance to create a more inclusive society and recognize seniors’ inherit value by breaking down traditional divides between older and younger age groups. For example, certain parts of cities in Texas and across the nation are becoming more age segregated partly as the result of gentrification and displacement.
In smart cities of the future, social resilience will be a key ingredient for building stronger communities and for addressing aging-in-place issues. In 2013, a research report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta concluded that cities with a high degree of social resilience tend to enjoy numerous health and economic benefits. Put simply, it is not only the right thing to do; it is also not feasible to continue isolating adults based on their age as seniors become a greater share of the populace.
Our cities in Texas can serve as incubators of innovation that make aging a healthier, less socially isolated experience.
In coming up with solutions, more city mayors are establishing task forces on aging, city councils are forming commissions to inform age-related policy, and civic leaders are working with community members from all segments of the population. Cities could also create short-term action plans that contain concrete steps to foster social inclusion and improve the health and well-being of seniors. Dallas, for example, has a Senior Affairs Commission consisting of 15 people selected by City Council members and the mayor to guide city staffers. And vulnerable seniors in Dallas can get help from caseworkers in the city’s Office of Senior Affairs.
Dallas is part of AARP’s Network of Age-Friendly Communities, a World Health Organization initiative that also includes Austin, Brownsville, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio. Leaders of communities in this network recognize they must consider all factors, such as skyrocketing property values that make it hard for the elderly to stay in their homes, to maximize civic engagement and be more age-inclusive.
This does not mean that cities should prioritize the needs of seniors over those of other groups, but rather that every effort will be made to ensure that they contribute and enjoy what has been labeled “active aging.”
Leaders should particularly focus on expanding public transportation and affordable housing in order to help seniors remain in their communities and live independently. We need to do a better job incorporating older residents into all aspects of city life.
Inventiveness is part of the social fabric in Texas. We have an opportunity to make similar innovations for the aging process. The conversation must start now.
Jacqueline Angel is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.
Andrew Scoggin is a Master of Public Affairs candidate at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.