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California is unprepared to care for its aging baby boomers, UC Berkeley/UCLA report warns
02 April 2001

By Patricia McBroom, Media Relations

Berkeley - California must prepare now for the rapidly approaching point when the state's huge baby boom generation will begin surpassing age 65, according to a report by two leading gerontologists at the University of California, Berkeley, and UCLA, along with a colleague at the University of Iowa.

The report, "Strategic Planning Framework for an Aging Population," will be the subject of a joint hearing today (Monday, April 2) by the State Senate Subcommittee and the Assembly Committee on Aging and Long-Term Care, chaired respectively by Senator John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) and Assemblymember Rebecca Cohn (D-Saratoga).

It is part of a larger project, to be completed in July 2003, that began in 1999 when Senate Bill 910 called upon the University of California to convene a group of researchers to examine existing state resources for aging and develop a comprehensive plan to address future needs. Today's report includes findings from 11 working papers on key issues for older adults. The project is coordinated by the California Policy Research Center, which published this report.

California's population of people older than 65 will begin a rapid expansion in 2010, leading to a doubling of the current 3.5 million older adults around the year 2025. By 2030, when all baby boomers will have entered the age 65-plus category, older adults will represent more than one of every six Californians.

Forty years from now, the state will have 172 percent more adults over age 65 than it does now and 200 percent more adults over 85, according to conservative projections by California's Department of Finance. More accurate figures will be forthcoming from an analysis of 2000 census data.

"This demographic shift will challenge us in new and unpredictable ways," the report states.

"We have much to do," said project chair Andrew Scharlach, professor of social welfare and director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Aging Services at UC Berkeley's School of Social Welfare.

"We have a window of opportunity in the next 10 years, and we must begin to think broadly across all aspects of life, from housing to transportation, to meet this challenge. In whatever long-range planning we do in any area, we must keep in mind how it will affect the state's aging population," said Scharlach.

Scharlach said that, in recent years, the state has made great strides in bringing together a coordinated long-term care system. But the report makes clear that fragmentation and complexity in California's 125 programs for older people raise "questions about California's capacity to respond innovatively to the projected doubling of its older population."

Said Sen. Vasconcellos, "There is no way in the world we can ever afford to pay for the costs or meet California's needs with our current care system in the face of these coming demographics."

The baby boom generation is far more ethnically diverse than today's current older population, raising questions about the economic vulnerability of the aging group.

More than 40 percent of California's baby boomers are African American, Latino or Asian and one-third were born outside of the country, the report states. These groups, in general, have fewer resources than the current older population, which is 73 percent white English speakers.

"Minority and non-minority alike, we all have a stake in the aging of California," said Fernando Torres-Gil, co-author of the overview report with Scharlach and University of Iowa professor Brian Kaskie. Torres-Gil is professor of social welfare at UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research, where he also directs the Center for Policy Research on Aging.

"Younger minority people cannot assume that they don't have a stake in preserving programs for the elderly because, in time, they will need the same programs, and their parents will need them." said Torres-Gil.

By the same token, Torres-Gil emphasized that older people today have a responsibility to invest in the education, training and health care of the younger minority.

"It's a two-way responsibility," he said.

The baby boom generation is dauntingly large. Compared to 33 million older Americans today, 75 million people were born in the 20 years after World War II.

Some 10 million of those 75 million baby boomers live in California, a state whose size and diversity make it a "barometer of how the nation will grapple with the challenges and opportunities of population aging," said the report.

Assemblymember Cohn predicted that "today's baby boomers are going to demand a much more responsive, dignified system of care than we have now. We have to act quickly to put systems in place for the age wave. All too soon it will be upon us, and we will be responding rather than planning."

Added Vasconcellos, "We must become bold, creative and strategic and recognize that we're now within a five-year window of opportunity."

Research commissioned for the project included topics ranging from mobility and dependence on the automobile to health and housing issues for older Californians. Some 90 percent of elderly Americans live in suburban and rural areas, rather than in transportation-rich central cities.

In their overview report, the gerontologists call for a redefinition of who is "old" and therefore eligible for services. With so many older healthy adults in the population, it makes sense to base services more on physical functioning than age, they said.

"We question whether age is the appropriate criterion for allocating scarce resources and benefits when the older population will vary tremendously between those doing well physically and those doing poorly," said Torres-Gil.

"We are raising the issue," said Scharlach. "There are no easy answers. Are we saying there is nothing one is entitled to based on age? We don't want to go there either."

Another critical problem concerns the use of state money - an estimated $9 billion per year - for long-term care. Most of this money goes into institutional, nursing home care, but the vast majority, 92 percent, of long-term care recipients live in the community. Only 100,000 people live in nursing homes.

"We must shift long-term care money so that it supports people at home and in the community. Most people do not want to live in nursing homes, and they are not moving there," said Scharlach.

Scharlach said the state needs higher reimbursement rates for in-home care. There is also a pressing need for better trained, more stable long-term care providers.

The gerontologists call upon California to create more affordable housing for seniors, particularly for single women and African American and Latino older adults. Of all senior African Americans in the nation, 70 percent are saddled with "severe" housing costs, with more than 50 percent of their income going to housing. Among Latinos, 53 percent have severe housing costs; among non-Latino whites, the figure is 25 percent.

In addition to these pressing needs, project researchers - 16 distinguished experts on aging - have recommended some 60 specific policy changes in the 11 topic areas. The second and third phases of the project will involve formulating a comprehensive database on California's aging population and developing a composite profile of older Californians. The project will culminate in a strategic plan for addressing the demographic, economic and social changes brought by an aging population.

The California Policy Research Center is a systemwide research and public service program that applies research expertise to the analysis, development and implementation of state policy.

The overview report and policy briefs summarizing the working papers are available on the California Policy Research Center (CPRC) Web site.