As Pa.'s population ages, lawmakers seek help to support seniors

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HARRISBURG — Population projections show Pennsylvania is aging rapidly with an estimated 1 in 3 state residents expected to be at least 60 years of age by the end of the decade, according to the state Department of Aging.

More than 3 million Pennsylvanians are currently age 60 or older and that figure is projected to grow to 4 million by 2030, according to Census Bureau estimates. The fastest-growing segment of the population based on age is 85 years and older.

“This is the first time in the United States and in Pennsylvania, this ever happened, that we have an older adult population that is larger than our younger population. That has never happened before, I think, in the history since we’ve taken censuses and looked at those statistics,” JR Reed, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Area Agencies on Aging, told members of the Aging & Older Adult Services Committee of the state House.

State lawmakers held separate hearings recently in the General Assembly to discuss the risks facing senior citizens, the price of caring for older adults and how state government can act to balance the cost burden with needed services.

Reed, who also is executive director of the Lehigh County Office of Aging, and Karen Leonovich, policy and programs director with the state Association of Area Agencies on Aging, identified government funding and provider staffing as major issues facing Pennsylvania seniors.

The commonwealth has 52 Area Agencies on Aging (AAA) serving all 67 counties. Those served by the AAAs are often disabled, low-income and have increasing needs for adult care services including in-home care.

Reed said service providers who work with older adults through the AAA network are struggling to hire staff for in-home care. In Lehigh County, he said they now have a waitlist for the first time ever.

The budget proposal by Gov. Josh Shapiro includes a $10 million increase for the AAA network and its OPTIONS program for in-home assistance, which Reed said is badly needed. Half of that funding would be used to recruit and retain staff serving older adults. The availability of in-home services — care management, meal delivery, personal care, more — helps seniors stay in their homes at a cost cheaper than institutionalized care.

Leonovich said there needs to be added emphasis not only on improving salary and benefits of in-home care but on underscoring the importance and potential reward of caring for older adults, especially among nursing students.

“Aging has not been a population discussed much at the high school level, the career level, the college level. There’s a lot of focus, and rightly so, on children and behavioral health issues. That’s very much needed, too,” Leonovich said.

Master planThe state Department of Aging, led by Secretary Jason Kavulich, is in the midst of developing a 10-year master plan to develop and improve services for older Pennsylvanians.

In a meeting of the state Senate Aging & Youth Committee, Kavulich noted how Census statistics show that Pennsylvania has the fifth-largest population of persons age 60 and older. And, it’s growing.

Senior Advisor Kevin Hancock, project manager for the master plan, said they’re working with the governor’s office to issue an executive order for the master plan and hope to kick off public efforts to develop it next week. Public input will be sought throughout the remainder of 2023, he said, including at regional presentations.

The plan will likely include initiatives to improve direct care and health care workforces along with housing and accessibility. Transportation, that is, the lack thereof, is another anticipated area to be addressed along with the expansion of broadband — either of which could help improve access to health care and other supports.

Sen. Art Haywood, D-Montgomery/Philadelphia, asked how the master plan would address long-term living and health care costs with respect to the state’s budget. He referred to a new state initiative, the Whole Home Repairs Program, and how it intends to help qualifying individuals with up to $50,000 to improve habitability, accessibility and energy efficiency.

Kavulich said there’s value in front-loading investments in services supporting aging in place. State funding used to help a person remodel a home bathroom to improve accessibility could keep them in place indefinitely, which he said, in the long run, would be far cheaper than providing in-home care.

“While it may seem more expensive upfront, in the end, it will save us a much larger bill,” Kavulich said.

Hancock called such investments “preventative action.”

“If you have the right kind of adaptive equipment in the home and it’s put in place before they need to progress into long-term services and supports, you could save millions of dollars very quickly on one individual,” Hancock said.

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