Caring for a Rapidly Aging State

New Hampshire is getting older—fast



Illustration By Emma Moreman

They call it the “silver tsunami.” Though controversial, the term is commonly used to describe the rapid graying of the industrialized world — and it’s sweeping over NH. The Granite State is now the third fastest-aging state in the nation and the fourth oldest in the country in terms of the percentage of the senior population.

“We don’t use that phrase because the association is one of unhappiness and devastation. I don’t know that we perceive of our parents and grandparents as this devastating force, so I don’t like that phrase,” says attorney Todd Fahey, the state director for AARP New Hampshire.

Fahey suggests the term “financial breakwater” to be more descriptive of the phenomena, which has been the topic of numerous recent studies, including the 2014 Longevity Economy-New Hampshire by Oxford Economics and another that was conducted in 2015 by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies.

No matter the source, the findings are the same, and they are undeniable. We’re getting older faster.

By 2030, nearly half a million of the state’s residents will be over the age of 65 and will account for nearly one-third of the total population.

In its findings, the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies found that during the next 20 years, the fastest-growing age group will be those aged 70-74, but that there will also be significant growth in the number of people aged 75 and over. By contrast, the number of people from the ages of 20-34 is decreasing.

Why? The state is a magnet for retirees and the younger crowd is not sticking around.

“It all has to do with demographic patterns in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Back in that time period, we had a huge migration of 30-year-olds and 40-year-olds into the state and those baby boomers live here now. So the larger share of our population, and more than in any other state, are baby boomers,” says Steve Norton, the executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies.

“We’re aging, and that’s the real reason. This is a place for folks in the Greater Boston area who are interested in a different type of lifestyle. We saw a huge migration from across the border, but, for the last 10 years, we have not seen the same in-migration. It’s been flat or negative,” he continues. “There is now some indication it’s picking up a little bit, but not much.”

The graying of Granite Staters presents a myriad of issues, which are made all the more daunting as different regions of the state present different challenges. Coös County, which has the highest poverty rates, also has the highest percentage of seniors, and the population there is aging at a significantly faster rate than counties in the southern tier.

But, in every part of New Hampshire, there are short-term implications and long-range ramifications of the silver tsunami as it affects health care, housing, transportation, state and local budgets, Social Security benefits, the economy and society as a whole.

This complex tidal wave must be understood and confronted, and, as Norton notes, every critical policy debate moving forward will be influenced by it. Healthcare, particularly with regard to soaring costs and accessibility, is the most crucial component.

Not only are the patients getting older; so are doctors. The New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies found that those practicing here are already significantly older than the nationwide physician population. Even worse, we’re faced with a scarcity of geriatricians.

But there is plenty of positive news. Sixty really is the new 40, and many older citizens are living happier, healthier, and more active and engaged lives.

“One of the challenges is how we let people age in place and how we redefine aging so we don’t look at it as a slow and sad march to irrelevance, or as being a burden on society,” Fahey says. “I’m not sure that is the case anymore.”

Many aged 62 and beyond are now moving into nonprofit Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs) like Silverstone in Nashua or Birch Hill Terrace in Manchester, which recently merged with RiverWoods in Exeter.

Whether residing in a CCRC or living on their own, for many seniors, the emphasis is on the living and on giving. They continue to add plenty of color and texture to the fabric of society.

“This cohort tends to spend a lot of time and energy engaged in their communities,” says Fahey. “They participate civically and vote more, although that trend is changing. But historically, that group has been very civic-minded. They donate a lot of their time by way of volunteering, and that cannot exactly be monetized.”

They are also sharing the wisdom accumulated with the wrinkles along the way.

“This is a really important thing in an aging state: There is a lot of business opportunity here, because, if we can tie together the longevity economy and the economic power of this group of people, there are plenty of opportunities for people to serve that,” he says. “That group represents a pool of consumers.

“They are also entrepreneurs in their own right. There are plenty of studies indicating that people who start businesses later tend to succeed in greater numbers. Think about all of the hours that people have worked in their career over a lifetime. We ought to celebrate the fact that we have a talented, well-educated, competent workforce, even if they are slightly older than some others. And we can build upon that.”

Norton also sees plenty of good reasons to surf the silver wave.

“We’re aging rapidly, but are still in our economic prime,” he says. “There is a lot of social and political capital in this big group of baby boomers who live in New Hampshire. One really important question is how do we tap into that, support that and take advantage of that?”

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