Traverse City News and Events

The Silver Tsunami: What A Growing Senior Population Means For Northern Michigan

By Craig Manning | March 12, 2022

The Silver Tsunami isn’t just coming for Traverse City; it’s already here.

So says Cindy McGarry, business development and community liaison for BrightStar Care of Northern Michigan. A term used to describe population aging trends, “Silver Tsunami” has become common vernacular in recent years as more members of the baby-boom generation have entered their 60s. The size of the boomer cohort, combined with the longer lifespans of the modern world, mean the Silver Tsunami will create a historically large senior population throughout the United States in the coming years. In turn, that trend is expected to pose challenges for the healthcare system, for senior housing and care services, and for the American workforce.

In most parts of the country, the Silver Tsunami remains largely hypothetical. Per the Census Bureau definition of boomers – “individuals born in the United States between mid-1946 and mid-1964” – the oldest members of that cohort turn 76 this year, and the youngest 58. It’s not until 2025 that all boomers will be 60 or older, and not until 2030 that the entire cohort will be at or above the general retirement age of 65. Those milestones are expected to trigger most of the hurdles of the Silver Tsunami.

But McGarry says Traverse City has attributes that make it uniquely vulnerable to the challenges posed by an aging population. The first of those attributes is Traverse City’s status as a desirable retirement destination, which has given the area a disproportionately large senior population. The second is the high cost of living, which makes it difficult for local workers to afford housing, childcare, and more.

Together, McGarry says, those factors are creating a situation where the need for senior care services in northern Michigan is skyrocketing but where companies like BrightStar – a “home care and medical staffing agency” – can’t find enough employees to meet demand.

“I believe we have 75 employees [right now],” McGarry says of BrightStar. “And we could probably hire 75 more. Our demand is through the roof. I take 12 intake calls a week, and we can probably service two of them. And it breaks my heart. I got into this business to help people every day; now, I listen to people crying on the phone when I can't help them, because I'm the second or third person they’ve called, and nobody's got the staff.”

According to the Area Agency on Aging (AAA) of Northwest Michigan, Grand Traverse County will have an over-60 population of 31,545 by 2026, up from 27,818 in 2021. In an ideal world, Lana Payne, director of the Grand Traverse County Commission on Aging, says local senior-serving organizations would grow and scale “to keep up with the increase in the senior population.” But like McGarry, Payne admits that growing the younger workforce needed to support that growth will be difficult without affordable housing and daycare availability.

Already, the problem of scalability is rearing its head. Cordia President and CEO Karen Anderson tells The Ticker that the senior living community has just one apartment open right now, out of 110 units. When asked about expanding Cordia’s footprint, Anderson calls the question “complicated.”

“While the TC community could very likely benefit from additional supply [of senior living] at varying price points, the local labor market cautions against new development,” Anderson explains. “It is difficult to hire employees to fill all the positions we currently have. The small size of the local potential employee pool, and the shortage of affordable housing for employees once hired, combine to make workforce maintenance very challenging. Cordia would not consider additional expansion until we had greater comfort around the labor market.” 

Complicating matters is the possibility of labor shortages worsening as the area loses workers that are at or nearing retirement age. Per data from Networks Northwest, 19.7 percent of Grand Traverse County adults aged 55-64 are currently employed, along with 6.4 percent of those 65 and older.

It's not just a Grand Traverse County problem, either. The AAA of Northwest Michigan serves a 10-county region spanning Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Manistee, Missaukee and Wexford. According to AAA Executive Director Heidi Gustine, that 10-county region accounts for 315,339 residents, as of 2021. 95,741 of those people (30.4 percent) are boomers. Another 29,472 (9.3 percent) are part of the “Silent Generation,” 77 years or older this year. Those two groups, collectively, are larger than the combined totals of Generation Xers (55,478 people) and millennials (53,179 people) living in the region. These numbers, Gustine notes, throw into sharp relief the uphill battle northern Michigan is facing as it seeks to support its growing senior population.

“Right now, if you pick up any newspaper, we’re reading about workforce shortages,” Gustine said in a recent Grand Traverse Community Collaborative meeting focused on the senior services. “It’s because we’ve got this dichotomy in our population right now, of so many more baby boomers compared to the working generations.”

The situation is only going to get worse. Statistically, Gustine notes that the 10-county population is projected to grow to about 323,000 by 2026, with the over-60 population growing 10 percent. In the same timeframe, the under-60 demographic in the region is expected to decline two percent, with more young people and middle-aged adults moving out of the area than are coming in.

“This is important when we start talking about continuum of care, because we’re already at a point where our continuum of care is stressed,” Gustine said. “The pandemic has really pushed [senior care] into some crisis situations, and we’re going to feel that compounded as these numbers continue to change over the next five years.”

“About five years ago, Grand Traverse County was heralded as one of the best places to retire [by CNN],” added Deborah Allen, foundation executive director at Grand Traverse Pavilions. “When that came out, Heidi and I had a conversation and said, ‘Wow, how are we preparing for this?’ Because since that article came out, I think we all acknowledge that there’s been a huge number of people retiring to our community. And the infrastructure and the services [for seniors]…have not necessarily been augmented for that growth.”

So, how is northern Michigan going to meet the need for senior care services? For Russ Knopp, who co-owns the local franchise of in-home care provider Comfort Keepers, there are two outside-the-box strategies that could help.

“I meet with lawmakers and policymakers all the time to talk to them about how guest workers and immigration could help our industry,” Knopp says. “People who come from other countries that have this kind of experience, they could come and fill positions here. The other thing that's happening is Silicon Valley is stepping up and seeing that there's opportunity here. I get emails every week about the latest and greatest technology that's coming out to help seniors stay independent in their homes. The one that we're looking at right now is artificial intelligence that studies the behaviors of seniors in their homes – to keep them safe and nourished, to help them with taking their medications at the right times, all those things. Technology is going to play a big part here in the next decade, for sure.”

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