The Oregonian: Clark County faces 'silver tsunami' as the number of retirees rises
Author: By Elliot Njus
Posted: September 16, 2010

Clark County, like much of the country, is looking a little gray around the edges.

By 2025, the number of retirement-age Clark County residents is expected to double, and that means twice the need for senior housing, health services and transportation.

With the first of the baby boomers turning 65 in January, some communities across the country are bracing for the "silver tsunami," said David Kelly, the executive director of the Southwest Washington Agency on Aging and Disabilities.

"It's the largest group of people going through the aging process that we know of in the history of the world," Kelly said. "That's pretty powerful if you stop and think about it."

Clark County officials and a task force are working to brace the community before the aging boom hits in full force, starting with a series of workshops on senior issues.

"We have task forces for all kinds of things, for everything else, but we don't really have any kind of formal assistance to the county commissioners on aging," Commissioner Marc Boldt said.

Margaret Neal, director of the Institute on Aging at Portland State University, said it's still unusual for communities to put together a wide-ranging plan for accommodating the aging population. Most communities have plans that are limited to low-income seniors because such documents are required for certain federal funding.

"Our population is aging, and it is high time that we begin to consider them in our planning efforts," she said. "It's still relatively rare for cities to have implemented any kind of planning processes that are comprehensive in scope."

Efforts in Clark County and some nearby Oregon counties, Neal said, are uniquely positioning the region to become a leader in the looming age wave.

"It's fairly unique to have so many different contiguous regions interested in a common topic," she said.

Aging is an issue not often raised in government, Kelly said, but it's one constituents face regularly.

"People are dealing with their parents and seeing what struggles and issues are coming up," Kelly said. "You start thinking about what needs to be fixed and what we can do better, and you start thinking about your situation and where you want to be when you age."

That might explain the unusual response when the county commissioners put out a call for task force volunteers. They received more than 80 applications. Typically, such calls might net 12 or 15 responses, Boldt said.

The resulting 24-member task force includes gerontologists and retirement community workers, but it also includes an architect, a transportation engineer and other professionals in the group's focus areas -- housing, transportation and mobility, health care, supportive services, and civic and social engagement.

The first reservation-only session, held Thursday, focused on housing and was already nearing its cap of 120 participants a week ago.

"So many times in county government, we plan for other people," Boldt said. "Hopefully this plan is going to come from the aging population. They're opinionated, we value that, and this plan is really going to come from them."

The workshops are intended to bring community members together with the task force, elected officials and local professionals. Assisted living administrators and real estate agents were invited to the housing session, and representatives from C-Tran will attend the session on transportation.

In between workshops, the task force will meet and eventually assemble their recommendations in a report for the Board of County Commissioners.

Their plan could include some expanded services, but Kelly said many of the issues the county could address might not have a significant cost -- for example, adopting zoning rules that are more accommodating to seniors or trying to attract senior-friendly businesses.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to say there are X number of people and they're getting older," Kelly said. "If there are changes that can be made to make ourselves a livable community for our entire population, including the aging population, then let's do that."