As baby-boomers hit 65, state told to prepare for ‘silver tsunami’

Connecticut’s population is already the seventh oldest in the nation, and it’s getting grayer by the minute.

With that in mind, municipal leaders, legislators and policy experts packed a forum at the state Capitol Monday to learn how to better prepare their communities for the coming “silver tsunami” of baby-boomers hitting age 65.

Despite the dream of packing up and moving to Florida, 90 percent of older Americans stay put after retiring. Most remain in the same county, and even in the same house, said keynote speaker Coralette Hannon, a senior legislative representative with AARP’s national office.

The great challenge facing cities and towns is to successfully adapt so that residents can age in place independently rather than having to enter a nursing home.

During the forum, speakers discussed everything from making walk lights at crosswalks longer to video conferencing with a nurse to monitor vital signs at home.

By 2030, Connecticut’s over-65 population is expected to grow by more than 64 percent, while its younger population shrinks, according to the Connecticut Commission on Aging, which sponsored the forum with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

Hannon suggested that one way to prepare is to make streets and homes safer and barrier-free, initiatives that often benefit not only older residents, but younger people as well, she said.

“A curb-cut designed for a wheelchair user also benefits a parent pushing a baby stroller. A crosswalk safe for a senior is a crosswalk safe for a child,” Hannon said.

The AARP advocates the “Complete Street” concept of designing a street for the safe and comfortable travel of everyone, whether on foot, in a car or on a bike. This could include wide sidewalks, trees, bus stops with shelters and benches, bicycle lanes and well-marked crosswalks. Connecticut adopted a Complete Streets policy in 2009.

Upping home design standards

Hannon also recommended that towns adopt “inclusive” home design standards to help older residents live longer at home. These designs would eliminate barriers found in traditional homes, replacing them with a step-free entrance, non-slip floors, accessible bathrooms and other features.

Also during the forum, Dawn Lambert discussed the looming and expensive problem of more people needing long-term care.

Lambert is project director of the state Department of Social Service’s Money Follows the Person program, which aims to move people out of institutionalized settings and place them back into the community.

Lambert noted that Connecticut has the highest percentage of people over age 65 institutionalized in the country. Many of these people are supported by Medicaid funds for long-term care. Lambert suggested that the state needs a culture change, an openness to having older residents live in their communities.

Speaker Jim Lisher talked about how his town, New Canaan, has begun to look into how to create a more senior-friendly community. Lisher, chairman of the town’s Health and Human Services Commission, said the town has already installed 22 benches along major walkways, recommended a tax abatement and promoted the development of assisted living housing and middle-class, affordable housing for seniors.

The town is also testing a pilot “tele-health” wellness program that allows seniors to use iPads to talk with a nurse once a week about how they are doing.

“We’re not trying to intercede with the doctor, but just help them make lifestyle recommendations,” Lisher said.

Martin J. Conner, the city planner in Torrington, discussed his success in getting grants to promote healthier nutrition and activities for the elderly. The town offers a four-week healthy cooking class and a community garden with raised beds for seniors. The town also offers various other activities for the 65-plus population, including tap dancing, acting and costume design classes at the Warner Theater, he said.

The city is also looking at housing needs, noting that by 2020, 50 percent of Torrington’s population will be at least age 55.