NEW YORK – Less than half of the nation's communities have begun preparing to deal with the needs of the elderly, whose ranks will swell dramatically with the aging of the baby boomers, according to a study released Wednesday.
A survey of more than 1,790 towns, counties and other municipalities found that just 46 percent are looking at strategies to deal with aging America.
The issue is critical because the baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — began turning 60 this year and are rapidly approaching retirement age. By 2030, the number of people over age 65 in the United States will exceed 71 million — double the number in the year 2000, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, or n4a, one of the sponsors of the study.
The report, titled "The Maturing of America — Getting Communities on Track for an Aging Population," looks at health care and nutritional programs, transportation, public safety and emergency awareness, volunteer opportunities and other services.
Sandy Markwood, chief executive of the n4a association, told The Associated Press that the findings "should serve as a wake-up call for communities to begin planning now."
Markwood added that providing adequate services also will require participation by corporations, nonprofit groups and individuals.
"The question that people need to ask themselves — and their community leaders — is, 'Is my community a good place to grow old?'" she said. Steps to make it so, she added, "will make the community a better place, not just for the elderly, but for all."
Among the key findings in the report:
— Health care. In one-third of the communities surveyed, older adults do not have access to services such as health screenings, counseling on prescription drugs or health education.
— Nutrition. Some 80 percent of communities have programs providing home-delivered meals for the elderly, but just 25 percent provide nutrition education.
— Exercise. More than one-third of communities do not have fitness programs for older adults.
— Housing. Just half of communities have home modification programs to help the elderly with physical limitations stay in their houses.
— Work force development. More than 40 percent of communities do not offer formal job training or retraining programs.
— Human services. Many communities have failed to create a central point for seniors to go to seek information.
Sibyl Jacobson, president and chief executive of the MetLife Foundation, which underwrote the study, said the results indicate America has much more to do to prepare for a graying population.
"The good news is that 46 percent of American communities have begun planning to address the needs of this exploding population," Jacobson said. "The other side is that many communities have not. We hope this will spur discussion, will spur interest."
Besides pointing out deficiencies, the study also heralds programs that are elder-friendly.
The city of Danville, Va., for example, sponsors a program that provides blood pressure and body mass index screenings for the elderly. Buncombe County, near Asheville, N.C., has special transportation services for older adults to help them get to medical appointments or to senior centers. Rockport, Mass., has subsidized housing and rental assistance for the elderly.
Markwood of the n4a association noted that some of the programs would cost a lot of money to develop but others wouldn't cost much at all.
"If a community is looking to redo its signs, why not consider larger, more-reflective street signs," she said. "It wouldn't benefit just older adults. It would benefit all drivers.
"The same is true of increasing the time at pedestrian crossings."
Other organizations that participated in the study were the International City/County Management Association, a professional organization for community managers and administrators; the National Association of Counties, which represents county governments; the National League of Cities, which represents municipal governments; and Partners for Livable Communities, a nonprofit groups working to renew communities.