The elderly population in Mecklenburg County is set to explode over the next 25 years and beyond, bringing with it a host of new challenges to affordable housing, infrastructure and already overtaxed social services. Indeed, the county outpaces projected national growth rates.
The volume of aging baby boomers and increased longevity are sparking the increases. In addition, slower growth rates among the young means that those aged 65 and above will make up a larger share of the population.
In 2010, there were an estimated 82,419 people aged 65 and older in Mecklenburg County, according to the N.C. Office of State and Budget Management. That figure is slated to rise 65 percent to 136,334 by 2020. By 2030, the elderly population is projected to grow to 205,262, a hike of 51 percent from 2020 and 149 percent from 2010. The median age in the county is expected to climb to 38.8 in 2030 from 34 in 2010, but that is still lower than the median age in surrounding counties.
Coupled with an increasingly aging population is a general increase in the number of people moving to Mecklenburg County, said John Chesser, senior analyst at UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. The area has attracted a large number of migrants, both international and from other states. The county is also home to a large number of younger individuals who are starting families. They are often followed by their aging parents.
In the U.S., the elderly population is predicted to grow 38 percent to 56 million in 2020 from nearly 40.5 million in 2010. By 2030, the U.S. Census Bureau believes the population will swell to 72.8 million. That’s up 30 percent from 2020 and nearly 80 percent from 2010.
County preparing for changes
Michael Olender, associate director of AARP North Carolina, said Mecklenburg County is doing its best to accommodate the rising tide. He cites the city’s devotion to increasing transportation options and walkability, with a public vote up next month for a capital-investment plan that includes funding for the 26-mile Cross Charlotte Trail.
In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency named the city of Charlotte one of two award winners for “Building Healthy Communities for Active Aging.” The award recognized Charlotte’s incorporation of senior-friendly design into street improvements, including larger signs for the increasing numbers of older drivers, the addition of ramps at intersections, and more medians with longer and audible crossing areas. The city has a goal of building 10 miles per year of sidewalks.
But, Olender said, he doesn’t think any area in the country is entirely ready for the future growth rate among the elderly.
“Imagine where we will be years from now when there is that much more demand for services and the political debate is likely to be ongoing over who will pay for them all,” he said. “It’s the same old debate, just put on steroids.”
He believes the success of future planning has to do with state and federal funding. In the last fiscal year, 41 percent of federal government expenditures were for Social Security and Medicare.
Caring at home
“Most of the caregiving in the state is being done by family members informally and in the home,” he said. “If you ask (older) people, nine out of 10 of them want to stay at home.” Olender said that in N.C., 1.7 million adults are caring for family members, 80 percent of whom are over the age of 50. Yet, 80 percent of statewide Medicaid funds go to nursing homes, he said.
In an effort to stay in their homes, many older people need to modify their residences to include features such as a no-step entry, extra-wide doorways and lever-style handles, according to a report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University released last month. For the private sector, this “provides vast opportunities to innovate in the areas of housing and supportive care,” said the report, titled “Housing America’s Older Adults, Meeting the Needs of an Aging Population.”
While it is up to the individual to prepare for the future and consider options such as long-term care insurance, the “cost savings that can be generated from providing publicly funded long-term care in the home rather than in an institution” will determine the future of benefits from programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and housing assistance.
Only about 2 percent of older adults reside in group-care settings, the report said. Still, 37 percent of those aged 65 and over will receive care in an institutional facility such as a nursing home or assisted-living community at some point in their lives, with an average stay of a year.
Building for the future
Mecklenburg County has 53 assisted-living communities, 28 nursing homes and some 25 developments for the over-50 community, according to Hillary Kaylor, ombudsman for county nursing-home residents at Centralina Council of Government’s Area Agency on Aging. But costs can range from between $2,500 and $6,000 a month for the more advanced-care options. This can force seniors into selling their assets or getting a reverse mortgage, as Medicare generally doesn’t cover long-term care. Over-50 communities can charge between $1,000 and $3,000 a month, she said.
For lower-income residents, the Charlotte Housing Authority has 12 communities with 1,098 total units designated for the elderly and disabled, including The Retreat at Renaissance, a 110-unit complex in west Charlotte that opened last fall. There are 1,300 names on the wait list.
The authority recently received $8.8 million in federal tax credits and $1.4 million from the city of Charlotte Housing Trust Fund to build 92 one-bedroom units for low-income elderly residents with an income at or below 60 percent of the area median income. It will be built at Park and Marsh roads in south Charlotte. The local grant is part of a larger state effort to build $423 million in affordable apartments in 37 counties, which is expected to create 3,683 privately owned and managed affordable apartments with 1,033 dedicated to the elderly.
Meanwhile, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Housing Partnership has 416 subsidized apartments for the elderly across six communities. An additional 62-unit development is underway on Mount Holly-Huntersville Road.
“We know the (elderly) population is increasing in Mecklenburg County, particularly among the lower income,” said Julie Porter, president of the partnership. “There’s incredible demand and we always need new resources.”