For aging California, is the future Florida?

[This is an excerpt of the California Dream collaboration’s Graying California. Explore the full series here.]

California is getting old.

As the last of the baby boom generation enters the golden years of their California dream, seniors are the state’s fastest-growing age group, far outpacing growth in children or working-age adults.

According to state projections, by 2030 more than 9 million Californians will be over the age of 65, 3 million more than there are today. Within a decade, more than 20% of the state’s residents will be seniors — a higher proportion than currently resides in Florida, a state famous for its large population of snowbird retirees.

Sources: California Department of Finance, 2017 American Community Survey. (Dana Amihere/KPCC)

“I think we’re looking at something that’s kind of a new experience for California,” said Ethan Sharygin, a demographer with the California Department of Finance. “We have a really large cohort of the baby boom generation living in this state, and they’re healthier than the generation before was at that age.”

California’s impending “silver tsunami” is bound to impact nearly all walks of life, from health care to transportation to housing. Here’s what you need to know about our senior population — who they are, where they live, and what they mean for the future of life in California.

How many seniors do we have now? And how many will we have in the future?  

In comparison to other parts of the country, Californians are still pretty young. The statewide median age in 2017 ticked up to just over 36, according to the U.S. Census. That makes California one of the 10 youngest states in the country. By comparison, Florida’s median age is 42.

But the state’s sheer size means California’s senior population is massive. Nearly 6 million Californians are over the age of 65 — that’s more senior citizens than the entire population of Oregon. If Californians over the age of 80 formed their own state — call it Greater Palm Springs — its population would warrant more congressional representatives than Delaware has now.

While California’s senior population is large now, just wait a couple decades.

“The senior population here is growing by an order of magnitude faster than any other age group,” said Sharygin. “None of the other groups are having double-digit growth like they are.”

While California’s working-age population is projected to grow by about 6% by the mid-2030s, California’s 65-plus population will grow by more than 65%. Over the same time period, the number of Californians younger than 18 is actually expected to dip slightly.

Percentages represent an age group's portion of the total California population. Source: California Department of Finance.

Percentages represent an age group’s portion of the total California population. Source: California Department of Finance. (Dana Amihere/KPCC)

When U.S. veterans returned from World War II and began the procreation frenzy known as the baby boom, California was one of their favorite  destinations to raise kids. Born between 1945 and the early 1960s, the youngest members of this generation are now entering retirement age while the oldest are already in their 70s.

While aging boomers are by no means a uniquely California phenomenon, people in their 50s and 60s here tend to be healthier and have longer life expectancies than in other parts of the country, according to Sharygin.

Despite increases in living costs, baby boomers don’t seem to be leaving California in the numbers you might expect. While some are fleeing to more affordable places like Nevada and Arizona, the vast majority are spending their golden years in the Golden State.

“The data we have don’t show that the 65-plus population moving out of state is a very important phenomenon,” said Sharygin.

According to an analysis of 2017 census data, on net, California lost about 20,000 seniors to other states — less than 1% of its total senior population.

Who exactly are California’s seniors? 

Nearly 60% of California seniors are white. But the state’s over 65 population is far more diverse than it used to be. In a decade, no ethnic group is projected to comprise a majority of California seniors.

“The long history of our state is that the senior population has been the least diverse, and of course, that reflects population changes from decades ago,” said Hans Johnson, research fellow at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. “But we’re due to see major growth in Latino and Asian seniors that will shake things a little.”

Source: 2017 American Community Survey, Public Policy Institute of California (Dana Amihere/KPCC)

Thirty-four percent of California seniors are foreign-born — older Californians are actually more likely to be immigrants than younger Californians. In places such as Los Angeles County and San Francisco, more than 30% of residents over age 60 have limited English proficiency, according to data compiled for the California State Plan on Aging.

Where and how they live?

Along with the surge in non-white seniors, the state can expect a major bump in the ranks of the elderly without family to help them.

“Baby boomers had much lower birth rates than their parents, and they are more likely to never have kids at all,” said Johnson. “If you don’t have children or you only have one child, the burden of providing that care is larger.”

While the most common living arrangement for seniors is still to cohabitate with a spouse, about 36% of women and 20% of men over 65 currently live alone, according to Census data.

Assisted living facilities — housing communities that can provide daily living assistance to seniors outside of a medical setting — are pretty popular in California. But only 2% of California seniors live in nursing homes — facilities in a medical setting.

Source: Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics; U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement. Note: Living with other family indicates no spouse present. Living with nonfamily indicates no spouse or other relatives present. (Dana Amihere/KPCC)

Geographically, the senior population in California is roughly distributed the same way as the rest of the state — two-thirds live in major coastal population centers like the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

But over the next few decades, the largest increases are expected to come in Central Valley and Inland Empire counties like Sacramento and San Bernardino, according to the state Department of Finance.

Almost 4.3 million seniors are licensed to drive on California roads, with well over 1 million aged 75 or older, according to data compiled by the Federal Highway Administration. Three of every four California seniors has a driver’s  .

How much money do they have?  

The typical California senior has an income of about $25,000 per year, according to data from the American Community Survey. That’s about $10,000 less than your average working-age Californian.

That obviously isn’t much, especially in a state as expensive as California. About 30% of seniors don’t have enough income to cover basic needs.

Where is that income coming from? Most commonly, Social Security. Two out of every three California seniors get a majority of their income from the federal retirement program, according to a UC Berkeley study. Less than half of senior-headed households get retirement income from a pension, 401k or IRA. About 20% of Californians over 65 are still in the labor force.

The good news is that more than 70% of Californians over the age of 60 are homeowners, according to U.S. Census data. Those seniors are typically faring far better economically than older California renters. One UCLA study found that more than half of low-income senior renters spent more than 50% of their income on rent.

“The biggest advantage [for senior homeowners] is having stable rent, especially if their house is paid off,” said Steven Wallace, associate director for health policy research at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

Wallace adds that Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that capped property taxes, enables many California seniors to age in place more easily.

How healthy are they, and how healthy will they be?

According to estimates from the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office, Californians turning 65 right now can expect to spend about 20% of their remaining years with a major disability — something that interferes with a basic activity like eating, dressing or going to the bathroom.

Women will spend more years with major physical limitations, simply because they are more likely to live into their 80s and 90s. The number of California seniors who have difficulty caring for themselves will double to more than 1 million by 2030, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

The state is already starting to see the consequences of an aging population living outside institutionalized care. According to data from the state’s Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, the number of visits to California emergency rooms by seniors from falling accidents increased almost 40% from 2010 to 2015.

State-funded in-home supportive services for the elderly and disabled now cost about $4 billion per year, and are expected to grow 11% annually — making the program one of the fastest-growing and costliest in the state, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Is the state ready for all of this?

“The easy answer is no, California is not prepared,” said Nancy McPherson, head of the California chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons. “But there is hope for California becoming more prepared with the new administration.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom called for a “Master Plan on Aging” to prepare the state for the demographic challenges ahead. The state’s current patchwork of programs to provide senior services — especially long term health care — is routinely criticized as underfunded, fragmented and difficult to navigate.

“I’m hopeful,” said McPherson.”You can’t really solve or reduce any problem until you acknowledge that there is one. And that’s what you see now.”

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