A real gray area

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 30, 2004

More than 15 percent of Virginians are 60 or older, and that percentage is growing. Experts say this trend may strain health care and other services – and ultimately the state budget.

So Del. John S. Reid, R-Henrico, has proposed that the state study the impact of Virginia’s aging population on the demand for government services.

Suffolk is almost right in line with the state. Of the city’s 63,667 residents, 9,827 – 15.4 percent – are over 60.


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Suffolk’s population exploded between 1990 and 2000, growing 22 percent over that decade, according to census reports.

The number of people over age 60 grew by 6 percent during that time, said John Skirven, executive director of Senior Service of Southeastern Virginia. The agency provides a variety of senior services for eight Hampton Roads localities, including Suffolk.

By the year 2030, about a quarter of Virginia residents will be over 60, said the delegate’s wife, Judi Reid, who chairs the Commonwealth Council on Aging. Last week, at a joint hearing by House and Senate budget-writing committees, she said the demographic shift could have profound implications.

Reid’s proposal, as well as other proposed budget increases for other senior-related programs, would benefit the growing aging population, say regional and local officials.

&uot;I’m very pleased it was introduced,&uot; Skirven said. &uot;We have a huge number of older people in south Hampton Roads, more than in any other part of the state.

&uot;What a study does is take the data and help us help understand what we have to do so that Suffolk can help its older people age successfully. It will help us really understand who these folks are and the economic impact of a growing aging population.&uot;

Duane Hass, a resident in Lake Prince Retirement Center and volunteer lobbyist for the state AARP, agreed.

&uot;I imagine that any study like this would be beneficial,&uot; he said &uot;The first thing they need to look at is adequate funding for healthcare.&uot;

The drastic federal and state budget cuts of recent years have impacted the quality of long-term care for residents, he said. The state AARP is supporting legislation that will support a cigarette tax increase from 2.5 cents to 60 cents per pack, with the revenue earmarked for health and long-term care services.

Ed Ansello, director of the Virginia Center on Aging at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the overall economic effect of the state’s graying population is unknown.

&uot;Virginia is becoming a very attractive retirement location,&uot; he said. Ansello said many seniors from other states may move to Virginia temporarily, pay taxes here but move back to live with their families when they need a greater level of care. Those retirees aren’t a drain on the state, he said.

Ansello said he liked Reid’s idea to have the Joint Legislative and Audit Review Commission study the issue – &uot;as long as the study is not just, ‘How much are these older Virginians going to cost us?’&uot;

But cost is certainly a concern.

Reid’s resolution notes: &uot;This growing older population, increasing dramatically in numbers as well as longevity, will experience ever greater needs of services … including increasingly complex and expensive health care, more frequent and intensive social services, expanded and more elaborate state facility and community geriatric mental health services, and enhanced advocacy and legal services.&uot;

Reid, a 61-year-old school administrator, said the study would be important as the baby-boom generation reaches retirement age.

&uot;I hope to provide legislators an opportunity to do some planning,&uot; he said.

The Commonwealth Council on Aging, a state-appointed advisory group, already has made recommendations for the current legislative session. The council has called on the General Assembly to provide:

An additional $1.25 million for transportation services for older residents. Many elderly Virginians do not have cars or driver’s licenses.

An extra $1.5 million for the state’s &uot;long-term care ombudsman&uot; program. The ombudsmen serve as local advocates for nursing home residents and others needing long-term assistance; they provide information, handle complaints and help resolve problems.

Virginia has roughly one ombudsman for every 4,000 long-term care beds. The Institute of Medicine says the state should have one ombudsman for every 2,000 beds.

Additional funding in both areas is direly needed, said Skirven. Even if the state devotes the extra $2.75 million to the two programs, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed, he said.

&uot;There is a real need to expand ombudsman services,&uot; Skirven said. &uot;There’s not anywhere near enough available in the state.&uot;

SSSEVA – which handles complaints and calls made to the state ombudsman line in southeastern Virginia – received 1,000 calls last year, Skirven said. But with only two full time ombudsmen – technically, it should have five – the agency could only respond to 200 complaints, he said.

Herb Young, healthcare administrator at Lake Prince Retirement Center, agreed.

&uot;Ombudsmen care is lacking in our state,&uot; he said. &uot;That is a crucial place to increase the quality of care.

&uot;…Additional funding would mean that the program could and would be enhanced tremendously but that is still just a beginning in my estimation,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s not going to get the number of ombudsmen up to what we need or double the response but anything will help.&uot;

Transportation is one of the top issues facing senior citizens across the region, Skirven said. But the issue is compounded in Suffolk because of the city’s size.

The council also urged lawmakers not to cut the budget of the Virginia Department for the Aging, which works with local agencies and other groups to help older residents find the services and information they need.

In fact, the council wants the state to restore $75,000 it slashed last year from the budget of the Virginia Center on Aging, located on Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical campus. &uot;That followed the $37,500 cut the year before,&uot; Ansello said.

Michael Glennon is a student reporter with Capital News Service, a program of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Mass Communications.