Go to a play, shopping, an art opening or any public gathering, and you might notice something about south Kenai Peninsula residents: many of them have a bit more gray hair and wrinkles. If it seems like many lower peninsula residents were born a few decades before the millennium, that’s right. We have some of the highest percentages in Alaska of seniors age 55 and older.
In a talk last Friday for the South Peninsula Senior Summit at the Homer Senior Center, demographer Eddie Hunsinger of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development presented an overview of the growing senior population in Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula and the lower peninsula.
Sponsored by Homer Senior Citizens, the first senior summit included talks on issues important to seniors, such as state senior services, addressing Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia, and the impact of retirement on Alaska’s workforce. Businesses providing services to seniors also spoke. On Thursday, Denise Daniello, executive director of the Alaska Commission on Aging, and Homer Senior Citizens held Elder and Senior Listening Forums inviting seniors to discuss issues like senior housing and elder safety and protection.
Homer Senior Citizens started the summit “to educate the community on the importance of seniors and what the state’s vision for senior services is,” said Homer Senior Citizens executive director Keren Kelley.
“This is a broad overview so the community knows and prepares for the future,” she said.
That future will see more seniors moving and staying in Homer, Hunsinger said.
“It’s important we have this meeting today, because the south peninsula, as you will see, is facing some unique challenges,” he said.
What’s driving the growth of seniors is Alaska’s own version of the Baby Boomers, the big post-World War II generation that has been leaving its mark on American culture and politics since they came of age in the 1960s. Alaska saw a large immigration of people now 50-years-old and older starting with the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline — “the pipeline generation,” Hunsinger called it.
Statewide, Alaskans 50 and older make up 27 percent of the population. On the peninsula, that’s even higher, 36 percent.
In graphs of population clusters grouped in 5-year increments, from infancy to 64, Alaska age groups are generally even, from 40,000 to 55,000 in each cluster. The graph looks like a solid block.
For the Kenai Peninsula, though, the range is more dramatic. Up to age 49, each 5-year cluster has 3,000 to 3,500 people. At age 50, it jumps up to between 4,500 and 5,200 for each 5-year group. The biggest group are those ages 55-59. The graph looks like a mesa with a big overhanging cliff.
For lower peninsula towns, that’s even more dramatic. For Anchor Point, Diamond Ridge and Fritz Creek, the largest group also is for ages 55-59. In Homer, the age 60-64 group is the largest. By contrast, the city of Kenai has more people in the groups ages infancy to 4 and ages 5-9.
More than 95 percent of seniors 65 and older live in their own homes and about 90 percent either live alone or with spouses. Just 5 percent live with grown children, and 80 percent own their homes.
Peninsula residents are poorer in general compared to the rest of Alaska. The median income — that is, the number where half are below and half are above — for all Alaskans is $70,000. On the Kenai, it’s $60,000 for all ages, and for those age 65 and older, it’s $42,000. However, fewer seniors are below the poverty level, just 5 percent compared to 9 percent for all ages on the peninsula.
Projecting out to 2035, Hunsinger said that aging trend will keep rising. By 2035, seniors 65 and older will make up almost 25 percent of the peninsula population compared to 20 percent for the United States and 15 percent for Alaska and Anchorage.
What drives that change? Four factors affect population growth, Hunsinger said: birth, death, in migration and out migration. A graph showing negative and positive population growth since 2000 shows that births and in-migration is generally even with deaths and out-migration. Another graph shows the relationship between just in-migration and out-migration.
“About 5 to 10 percent of the people in the borough won’t be here next year,” Hunsinger said.
Graphing in-migration and out-migration based on age group shows something many peninsula empty-nester parents know: a larger percentage of the late teen and young adult group from about ages 18-22 leave the area and later return.
“These profiles look like this, where they dip and then shoot up after college age,” Hunsinger said.
Alaska’s out- and in-migration profile is similar to Anchorage, except that like the peninsula, more teen and early 20s residents move away temporarily, Hunsinger said.
For Anchorage compared to the peninsula, in the retirement age group, out-migration is higher for Anchorage than the peninsula.
“Some of our incoming is Anchorage’s outgoing,” noted Derotha Ferraro, one of the audience members at the talk.