Life in Balance: New challenges as Idaho’s population grows older

As Idaho's population ages, researchers at Boise State are studying ways to prepare Idaho for the demographic shift.

BOISE - Actress Ingrid Bergman once said, "Getting old is like climbing a mountain: you get a little out of breath, but the view is much better."

A team of researchers at Boise State University is working to ensure seniors get the best view possible in the later years of life.

However, the task is a bit of a challenge as the number of seniors in our state grows exponentially.

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Marilyn Jackson is at the heart of a social revolution underway in Idaho. That is, the aging of the population. At 82-years-old, Jackson is among the fastest growing segment of Idaho's population.

Researchers term them the "oldest old," people 75 years and older.

Jackson says her key to a long life is "probably a lot of exercise."

She exercises three times a week, eats healthy, doesn't smoke, and drinks wine in moderation.

Jackson and the oldest old now make up six percent of Idaho's population. Over the next eight years, the segment of the oldest old population in Idaho will grow 23 percent. The segment of population under five years old will grow only four percent over the next eight years. Simply put, Idahoans are living longer while birth rates are dropping.

"The United States will never be as young as it is right now ever again because of the demographic shifts," said Sarah Toevs, director of Boise State's Center for the Study of Aging.

The center's mission is to assure our families, communities, cities and our state prepare for the aging revolution.

"These challenges and opportunities with really embracing this change in demographic is huge for us," Toevs said. "As this segment of population that's growing the most rapidly, how do we meet their needs."

One need is senior housing.

Jackson is living her retirement years at The Terraces of Boise, which offers a full range of living options in one community including independent, residential living; assisted living; skilled nursing living; and memory care living.

According to Toevs, only five percent of older adults live in assisted living or skilled nursing facilities. The majority live with family or on their own, posing an incredible challenge for caregivers who provide uncompensated support.

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The issue caught the attention of the Idaho Legislature, which in 2015, formally recognized family caregivers as an essential part of Idaho's health care system. Toevs and her team at the Center for the Study of Aging are also studying the issue.

"Idaho has about 300,000 family caregivers that provide services to individuals either family members or loved ones over the life span" Toevs said.

One push is to integrate the family caregiver into the health care model.

"So that when a provider sees an individual, the patient, they're also thinking about who is it that's with them that's supporting them and how do I engage them and make sure they're taking care of themselves," said Toevs. "That they're remaining healthy and able to provide this essential care."

Another issue being looked at is the need for seniors to maintain social connections. Toevs says seniors can often have feelings of embarrassment, frustration and sadness associated from the aging process. There is a strong tendency for isolation, especially in rural areas of our state.

"How do we push these activities and support these rural communities that aren't going to have a YMCA, they're not going to have a gym," Toevs said.

The Center for the Study of Aging is also working on building a statewide plan around dementia and Alzheimer's. The number of new cases are expected to soar. Toevs says our communities need to ensure there are enough equipped facilities to care for those seniors when they're no longer able to care for themselves. Preventative care is also key.

"The moniker is what's good for the heart is good for the head," Toevs said. "So it really is that activity, the diet, and a healthy lifestyle."

A lifestyle Jackson lives and believes in whole-heartedly.

"I think it keeps us healthy," she said.