Services strained as census shows Michigan is now 12th oldest state in nation

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Correction: This headline and story have been updated to reflect that the median age of the Michigan population increased 0.9 years between 2010 and 2018, according to a Detroit News analysis of census estimates, which is slightly less than the increase in the median age of the U.S. population over the same period.

Viruth Watts (left), 59, of Detroit, gets a blood pressure screening by Diane Upplegger of Henry Ford Hospital in Wyandotte during the Wayne County Senior Services Senior Fun Fest on Saturday, June 22, 2019.

Michigan residents are getting older — and the safety nets to support those aging populations already are showing signs of strain.

The median age of residents tops 50 years in 21 of the state's counties, far more than in any other state, according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau last week. All of those are in northern Michigan, and they're particularly concentrated east of Interstate 75.

With fewer younger people to work and more baby boomers reaching retirement, the economic future of those communities is a growing question.

"We're about to hit a tipping point," said Heidi Gustine, incoming executive director of the Traverse City-based nonprofit Area Agency on Aging of Northwestern Michigan. "The safety net systems are already starting to break, and demand is going to continue to increase."

For example, agencies focused on the aging have fewer workers but more demand for home health care jobs. Gustine's agency serves 10 counties in northwestern Michigan, three of which have populations with a median age of 50 or higher.

Overall, Michigan is the 12th oldest state in the country, with a median age of nearly 40 years. That was an increase of 0.9 years from 2010, just under the one-year rise of the entire U.S., according to census estimates. Dating back to 2000, Michigan's median age has jumped about four years, while the nation's age has increased by three years.

Median ages range from a high of 58.6 years in Ontonagon in the Western Upper Peninsula, to a low of 28.7 in Isabella, home county of Central Michigan University. Unsurprisingly, counties with substantial college populations skew among the state's youngest. They also tend to be more diverse, as the median age of whites is older than that of African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics.

"We're a state that is splitting in many ways demographically in terms of age but also in terms of diversity," said Kurt Metzger, a demographer and the mayor of Pleasant Ridge. "Urban counties are getting more diverse. Rural counties are getting older and staying pretty white."

Michigan's creeping age, like that of the nation, is mainly attributable to the aging baby boomer generation — named for the marked increase in the U.S. birthrate after the end of World War II.

Ida Clayben, center, 69, of Detroit listens as names are drawn during a raffle at the  Wayne County Senior Services Senior Funfest on Saturday, June 22, 2019.

More of the large baby boomer generation is entering senior age, said Xuan Liu, research manager for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. The council estimates the 65-and-older group will continue to grow over the next 15 years.

Michigan also experienced a period of prolonged population stagnation since 2000, at times losing significant numbers of post-college residents.

Adding to that is people are having fewer children. Michigan is in the midst of a projected 25% decline in the K-12 school-age population, Liu said. Some communities have closed schools and redeveloped them into senior housing to support these shifts.

Many communities, especially those that are rural, are losing working-age people and not attracting migrants, who tend to be younger.

"Lack of working-age people is setting the speed limit on our employment and economic growth," Liu said in an email. 

It also is creating challenges in care for the older population. Aging agencies said their communities are in desperate need of home health care workers, affordable senior housing and money to pay for those services.

Janet Saddler, 61, plays bingo with friends during the Wayne County Senior Services Senior Funfest in Wyandotte on Saturday, June 22, 2019.

Some counties have implemented senior millages to help with the costs of Meals on Wheels food programs, in-home care services, transportation and recreational programming. State law, however, caps senior millages at 1 mill, Gustine noted. Some northwestern communities in Michigan have waiting lists for some of those services.

"We have a lot of seniors that have insufficient savings," Gustine said. "They can't always afford to eat, and we have a wait-list in many areas for personal care services so that they can have a bath or someone to help them get dressed or help them with preparing meals — basic things we take for granted every day."

Also contributing to challenges providing services is there are too few home health care workers. Rising health care costs squeeze direct care wages under Medicare and Medicaid, Gustine said.

"You can go to McDonald's and make more money than doing that type of work," she said.

Hundreds gather for the Wayne County Senior Services Senior Funfest in Wyandotte on Saturday.

Some senior centers are getting creative, said Darren Young of the Upper Peninsula Commission For Area Progress, which provides publicly funded services in the UP.

For example, Baragaland Senior Citizens Center in L'Anse, he noted, is increasing wages to $15 per hour for certified nursing assistants and offering 401(k) plans, sick and vacation time and retirement plans for workers who stay at least a year.

"We brainstorm on initiatives on how to entice the workforce, and we're passing around ideas to see if other agencies can mimic these benefits," Young said. "We’re constantly trying to promote different caregiver workshops and training."

Ultimately, officials said, some type of long-term plan is needed to address the challenges communities are facing now or soon will. With planning starting for the 2020 census that will help determine the allocation of funds to help support senior services, now might be an optimal time for Michigan's leaders to work together to assess their communities and identify the best strategies for each situation, they said.

"We need to look at where do they go?" Metzger said. "How do they turn themselves around or will they slowly get smaller and become less relevant?"