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Informing Policy. Advancing Health.

When It Comes to Seniors, One Size Doesn't Fit All

What do Betty White, Morgan Freeman and Bruce Springsteen have in common?

For one thing, they are all older than 65. And, in Betty White’s case, way older. (Betty, believe it or not, is 94 and going strong.)

Still, while each is officially a “senior,” this trio also illustrates important differences among members of our diverse and rapidly growing senior population.

Rock and roll legend Springsteen is 66, falling within the youngest range of seniors between the ages of 65 and 74. Freeman, the Oscar-winning actor for the movie Million Dollar Baby, is 78, putting him squarely in the 75- to 84-year-old range. And Ms. White, the television personality, is the poster child for the 85-and-older age group.

Clearly, seniors are not a homogenous group, even though we often paint them with a broad brush. They are different in many ways, including health, lifestyles and finances.

A new CHI infographic, released today as part of Older Americans month, delves into those differences and encourages us to consider the unique preferences and needs of Colorado seniors.

The publication, 65 and Older: Not All the Same,” looks at how three age groups of Colorado seniors differ. The groups — ages 65 to 74, ages 75 to 84 and ages 85+ — roughly correspond with the Baby Boomers, the Silent Generation and the Greatest Generation.

As more Baby Boomers start to celebrate the big 6-5 and enter “seniorhood,” it becomes increasingly important to understand how they are different from other seniors. Some of these differences, like the prevalence of memory loss, are a product of the aging process. Other factors, such as housing preferences, reflect a cultural shift in how and where older adults want to live.

For service providers, city planners, housing developers and many others, it’s important to have a pulse on all of these differences in order to understand and meet the needs of all seniors.

So what does the infographic show? Here’s the Spark Notes version (speaking of generational differences, that’s the new Cliff Notes for all of you non-millennials):

  • The oldest seniors (85+) are most likely to live in a long-term care setting, with 16 percent residing in a facility. This tracks with their heightened need for daily supports. A third of people in this group need assistance with three or more activities of daily living (ADLs), which includes things like eating, bathing or getting dressed.
  • Compared to other seniors, those aged 75 to 84 report worse health across the board — general, mental and oral health — than the other generations of older adults. This is surprising given that these 75- to 84 year-olds are less than half as likely to need support with ADLs compared with the 85+ group. This may reflect a discrepancy between perceived and actual health status. A 75-84 year-old may have higher expectations for health status than older seniors, and therefore may rate it as worse if health issues arise.
  • The “freshmen” older adults, the 65- to 74-year-olds, stand out for their expectations around retirement income. They expect employment income to account for about one fifth of their retirement money. That’s three times higher than folks in the Silent Generation. There’s also a waning reliance on Social Security and pensions.

Despite these generational differences, there is one consistent trend: population growth. The magnitude varies across groups, but all older adult age segments are growing at a much faster clip than the rest of the state’s population. The 65-74 group will go from 432,000 to 667,000 between now and 2030. The 75-84 year-olds will more than double, swelling from 196,000 to 438,000. And we will see 64,000 more seniors age into the 85+ category.

In less than 15 years, older adults will account for 18 percent of the population, up from 13 percent in 2015 and nine and a half percent in 2000. 

Communities across the state are taking steps to plan for this age wave. Understanding the unique needs of each communities’ older residents is an important part of that process. But age isn’t the only factor in this equation. Senior preferences and needs also vary by race and ethnicity and geography. Stay tuned for a continuation of our “65 and Older: Not All the Same” series as we delve into these other factors.

If you can’t wait, never fear. There’s a lot of momentum around these issues in Colorado and a lot of resources available to learn more. The “CASOA” — the Community Assessment of Older Adults — has a wealth of measures that are broken down by region and other factors.

There’s also great work underway by the state’s Strategic Action Planning Group for Aging. This legislatively appointed commission meets twice a month and is preparing a set of recommendations for the governor on how the state can meet the needs of its senior population. The group contracted with the Colorado Health Institute to support its work through research and analysis. Meetings are open to the public, and we hope to see you there.