‘Silver tsunami’ hits Homer

It might be a dance with live music and a floor crowded with waltzing couples. It might be a forum for political candidates with non-stop questions being asked. It might be a parade float, an afternoon card game or swimming at the Kate Kuhns Aquatic Center. It might be grocery shoppers taking advantage of a 10 percent senior discount. Whatever the occasion, Homer’s senior citizens are there.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough leads Anchorage, Fairbanks and the Matanuska-Susitna areas in percent of population 65 and older according to the 2010 census:

• Kenai Peninsula Borough: overall population 55,400; 65 and older 6,275 or 11.33 percent;

• Anchorage: overall population 291,826; population 65 and older 21,139 or 7.24 percent;

• Fairbanks: overall population 97,581, population 65 and older 6,375 or 6.53 percent;

• Matanuska-Susitna: overall population 88,995; 65 and older 7,069 or 7.94 percent.

Clearly, the “silver tsunami,” as the nation’s growing senior population has become known, has arrived on the Kenai Peninsula.

Those numbers became startingly real for Derotha Ferraro, spokesperson for South Peninsula Hospital, while preparing a mailer on a health topic of particular interest to people age 50 and older. Going through the hospital service area’s population, Ferraro discovered that age group made up 42 percent of the service area’s population.

“That was really astounding to me,” said Ferraro.

What does an aging population mean for the city of Homer?

“As the population ages, if they own homes, (the city) receives less in property taxes because of the senior citizen exemption,” said Regina Mauras, finance director for the city of Homer, referring to the $150,000 exemption on property tax for residents 65 and older. “And since (that population) is generally not working, not as much is spent, except for in the health care industry.”

With data indicating the silver tsunami is gaining force, Mauras is concerned for the city’s future.

“The city of Homer has not done anything, in my mind, to encourage youth and growth in the city,” she said. “This is just going to be a retirement home one day, as far as I can see, and that’s not good. I can definitely see it happening.”

During development of boundaries for the recently approved Natural Gas Homer Special Assessment District, more than half the properties in the city’s core area were tax exempt for reasons including the age of property owners, according to former Homer Mayor James Hornaday.

At a recent gathering of Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center members, Hornaday said he overheard a conversation about reducing benefits given to seniors, such as the property exemption.

“I said there would be a revolution if they tried any of that,” said Hornaday. “You have to keep in mind that one of the things about the old coots is that we vote.”

Rather than tampering with exemptions, Hornaday sees Homer’s need “for some new economic development.”

An increasing population also may offer some balance.

“In the last 10 years, we averaged about 100 new people a year. You have to assume some of those are younger, although we are becoming somewhat of a retirement center,” said Hornaday.

Keren Kelley, executive director of Homer Senior Citizens sees firsthand the impact of Alaska’s and, more specifically, Homer’s increasingly aging population. Kelley recently returned from Juneau where she and other senior service representatives lobbied with AgeNet (Alaska Geriatric Exchange Network, a state association of senior service providers) for senior needs.

“This used to be a frontier and people went outside to retire, but now families are staying in Alaska,” said Kelley.

Nutrition is one of the priorities AgeNet is addressing.

“Typically what seniors want to do is pay for fuel to stay warm, but where they cut back is food,” said Kelley.

With more and more seniors staying at home, Kelley said a grant from a national family caregiver organization has been obtained to make sure caregivers receive training to properly and safely care for aging family members.

“We want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to provide the continuum of care at a high level,” said Kelley.

Considered a continuing education site through the University of Alaska Anchorage and the University of Washington, HSC offers health care training on a weekly basis on topics such as arthritis, oral health and acute care. Health promotion and disease prevention also are addressed by HSC. An example is the “Strong Woman” class offered through collaboration with South Peninsula Hospital.

As the older population grows, so does the laundry list of needs.

“We need more housing, more low-income housing,” said Kelley. “We’ll need a greater workforce focusing on geriatrics and caregiving.

However, the workforce is aging as the greater population ages. Ferraro used South Peninsula Hospital’s employees to illustrate the point. The hospital has a current staff of 363 employees. Of those, 184 are 50 and older and of those 25 are 65 and older.

Another area where SPH will see the impact of a growing senior population is in the hospital’s finances.

More and more of our patients and users of hospital services will be moving into the Medicare bracket. There’s good and bad with that,” said Ferraro. “In some cases, that provides insurance for people who were previously uninsured, so that’s the good news, but there’s also the element that Medicare is not real good at reimbursement. Our hospital averages about 70 cents on the dollar for Medicare reimbursement.”

Meeting the aging populations’ medical needs — arthritis, high cholesterol, diabetes and “all these diseases that as we age, we have to manage or otherwise they compound into more serious conditions,” said Ferraro — also is a focus of the hospital.

Meredith Morphew has recently been hired as a community health nurse educator. Morphew is a former long-term care nurse at SPH and part-time nurse at the hospital’s infusion clinic with 20 years of healthcare experience including hospice management, direct patient care with a focus on geriatrics and end-of-life care. Clinics for adult patients with diabetes, elevated blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity are being offered with Dr. Ross Tanner, a board-certified lipidologist. A twice-a-week VA clinic is helping address the needs of the area’s veterans of all ages.

Dr. Rob Downey, medical director for Seldovia Village Tribe, and his staff also have their eyes on the area’s seniors.

“The clinical rule is that the older you are, the more your medical situation is determined by many things rather than one thing,” said Downey. “If you’re 30, it’s much more common to have one medical problem, but when you’re 65 or older, it’s common that it’s a number of things. What that means is that we need to spend more time typically for the elderly.”

Downey said wellness and prevention “are really powerful clinical tools. … It turns out that wellness measures like eating right, getting enough rest, decreasing stress make a huge difference in the elderly population.”

A community education program, such as SVT’s Thriving Thursday classes for the public, is another avenue for addressing wellness and prevention. For patients whose access to resources is determined by Medicare, SVT has Emiley Sue Faris, a Medicare counselor, on staff.

“There are lots of wellness and vitality measures available to seniors so they can go longer, be strong, be happier and have more fun,” said Downey.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinskyh@homernews.com.