Growth in senior population causes community changes

Posted: Friday, December 31, 2004


  Workers install a new magnetic resonance imaging machine at Central Peninsula General Hospital last month. The area has seen an increase in health care provider services as the population has aged. Clarion file photo

Workers install a new magnetic resonance imaging machine at Central Peninsula General Hospital last month. The area has seen an increase in health care provider services as the population has aged.

Clarion file photo

As the number of seniors on the Kenai Peninsula increases, plans will have to be made to deal with the changing needs of an aging population. One of the first steps toward that goal was taken earlier this year, when ground was broken on a $49.9 million expansion project at Central Peninsula General Hospital.

CPGH CEO David Gilbreath said last week that the expansion project was borne out of a coming need to increase the level of health care offered to older patients.

"Part of it was driven by demographics," Gilbreath said. "... The graying of the peninsula was a factor."

Gilbreath said with an increase in older people will come an increase in the number of patient visits the hospital sees.

"The older patients use the hospital more and they use it more often," he said.

Gilbreath said the issue of having an aging population is something the hospital is watching very closely. The hospital completed a community health study in April that showed the overall population in the hospital's service area had increased by 50 percent since 1994. The study also said the population of people 45 and older doubled over the past decade.

"Compared to the rest of Alaska, there is a higher proportion of older residents in the Kenai region," he said.

Gilbreath said the biggest issue facing the hospital is finding ways to deal with patients who face a variety of ailments. Many older people have more than one affliction that must be dealt with by health care providers.

"The priority of our focus related to health would be prevention, and then how to manage the prevalence of multiple chronic diseases in our community," he said.

Older residents also need ways to stay in touch with health care providers. Keri Stout is coordinator of the hospital's Lifeline medical alert program, which enables seniors and other patients to keep in contact with with the hospital at all times.

Stout said for a $40 set-up fee, seniors can get hooked up to the program, which includes 24-hour monitoring via a bracelet or necklace people can wear. The idea is if someone falls or is unable to reach a telephone, they can push the Lifeline button and get help quickly.

"Normally we'll try to have subscribers list two or three neighbors of friends," she said. "If no one responds, someone from the hospital will."

Stout said subscriptions to the Lifeline program are on the rise as more seniors move to the area and more people realize the benefit of being prepared for the future.

"It's growing all the time," she said, noting that more than 60 subscribers have been added in the past year.

Beside having special health needs, older residents also have specific financial concerns. Financial planner Matt Streiff with Edward Jones Investments said he definitely sees variations in the needs of seniors versus younger people.

"There's a large difference in terms of the type of investing a senior citizen would use versus someone just starting a family," he said.

For instance, seniors often are looking for investments that will pay them monthly dividends because they're retired.

Making money last through the golden years is a big concern for older people, and Streiff said he tries to help people maximize the amount of money they can get from the principal they managed to save.

"Even a 65-year-old individual has a concern that they're going to outlive their money," he said.

Streiff said in addition to being a different kind of investor, seniors can provide a lot of value for the knowledge they bring from years spent saving and investing.

"Senior citizens usually have some good wisdom for us all," he said.

Perhaps the most valuable wisdom, he said, is the idea that people should begin saving for the future long before it's time to retire.

"Probably the most common thing I hear from my older clients is everyone wishes they'd started saving earlier," he said.

There is one area where seniors are able to save without having to do much planning: property taxes. In the Kenai Peninsula Borough, senior citizens are exempt from paying borough property tax on their homes. This is a boost for seniors, but could present a potential challenge for government officials as the area's population continues to age.

According to Scott Holt, borough finance director, the senior exemption accounts for $254 million in assessed property in the borough, a figure that's up by $12 million over last year. That total works out to $1.652 million in exemptions the borough doesn't collect in taxes each year - something officials are keenly aware of come budget time.

"That's one of the things we look at," Holt said.

Holt said it's not certain how long this trend will continue. However, statistics show the Kenai Peninsula is beginning to gray, with the area's senior population nearly doubling in the past decade. That means everything from health care to financial planning will continue to be impacted, and decisions will need to be made by both the public and private sector on how to deal with the area's coming "golden" age.

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