Advocates for Missoula seniors push for change as Baby Boomers age

More than a dozen service providers gathered recently in Missoula to provide healthcare and other information to area seniors. (Missoula Current)

When Gayle Hudgins considers the years ahead, she sees an aging population. The Baby Boomer generation will surge past the age of 65, swinging the state’s demographics while increasing the need for senior services.

Housing and health care may top the list.

“There’s going to be more and more older people to be supported by fewer younger people,” said Hudgins. “If they’ve lived right and lived well, there will be those people who need a lot of assistance, whether it’s medical or financial. That will put pressure on society as a whole to help them.”

Hudgins, the community educator for the Alzheimer’s Association and a former teacher in the University of Montana’s School of Pharmacy, joined a dozen other service providers in Missoula recently to host a senior health fair.

Nearly one in five U.S. citizens will turn 65 or older by 2050, though the Baby Boomer bulge won’t be equally distributed. Montana will be among a handful of states with an older population – nearly 20 percent of all residents, according to national statistics.

Affordable senior housing could be a challenge across the state.

“There’s some real problems with senior housing, especially for those on fixed incomes,” said Hudgins, who also sits on the board at Missoula Aging Services. “Those who own their own homes also get very concerned about taxes and costs and being able to meet those costs.”

Missoula is working to meet those future needs in its new housing policy. The Missoula City Council this month is expected to consider an age-restricted housing project that could bring more than 200 new units onto the market.

As Montana’s population ages, the University of Montana also is working to ramp up a new generation of health care workers. Sue Ostertag, who teaches physical therapy at the university, said interest in senior health care is growing among younger students.

“Often, it’s because of their own loved ones. This could be their mom, grandma or uncle,” said Ostertag. “If we can give our up-and-coming health care professionals a positive experience and train them well in how to screen, anticipate and advocate for the aging population, by the time they’re professionals, there’s no bias.”

Ostertag’s program includes a course dedicated to aging in the first year.

“I think exposing our students to this particular patient population early in their career as a student is important,” she said. “And if we can continue to give the individuals who are aging a good experience, they won’t be fearful when coming to physical therapy, their physician or their pharmacist.”

Breaking down stereotypes on aging may also play a role in preparing for the state’s demographic changes. An AARP study conducted in September found that 69 percent of consumers over the age of 50 believe media images are ageist.

Jenna Russell, president of the Gerontology Society at the University of Montana, said persistent stereotypes are hard to break, though she’s intent on changing opinions. Other communities are ahead of the game, including Boston, which recently launched a media campaign to promote positive views on aging.

“There’s definitely a lot of stereotypes of older adults, and I think a lot of those are negative,” said Russell. “What’s really going to help the health care system as they start aging more is to break those stereotypes. A lot of those aren’t true.”

The demographic swing is expected to bring its share of economic challenges as well. Main Street mom and pop business may close for lack of a buyer. The workforce could fall short due to the sheer number of retirees and the lack of younger workers to take their place. Companies could face a shortage of seasoned leadership.

Hudgins believes that financial resources could also pose a challenge as the state’s population ages. While the average life span has grown slightly shorter due to obesity and drug abuse, those who avoid such pitfalls will likely live into their 80s and 90s, putting a strain on their financial resources.

“You have those people who fall through the safety nets,” said Hudgins. “If they reach Medicare age and have Medicare, they’re in pretty good shape, but even then, meeting some of those deductibles, those things paid out of pocket, can be a real drain on people that don’t have a lot of income.”