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Rapidly aging population brings new opportunities, challenges

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WASHINGTON – Arizona’s population is growing older, bringing new opportunities – and new challenges – to the state in coming years, advocates say.

Those age 55 and older made up about 1.8 million people in Arizona in 2013, according to recent Census Bureau estimates, an increase of nearly 11 percent from the bureau’s 2010 estimates. That was the ninth-fastest growth rate among states in that period.

The state’s retirement-age population also grew from about 25 percent of residents in 2010 to 27 percent of the overall population in 2013, the Census said.

Included in that number is a net gain of about 25,000 people age 55 and over who moved to the state between 2010 and 2012. There are several reasons those people might move to Arizona, including a favorable climate and lower taxes, said Richard Fiesta, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans.

“It is a tax-friendly state for retirees,” Fiesta said, citing the state’s relatively low income tax rate and its lack of taxes on Social Security income, among others.

The growth in Arizona’s older population reflects nationwide aging, as baby boomers continue to get older, said state demographer Jim Chang.

“In the past several years, it has been growing faster than before, that’s for sure,” Chang said.

As older people make up a larger portion of the overall population, advocates said businesses will begin to adapt – and profit.

“What I tell people is every retiree that moves to the state brings a job with them, because they bring their pension checks and Social Security checks to spend,” said Doug Hart, president of the Arizona chapter of the Alliance for Retired Americans. That includes creating significant demand for the health-care industry in Arizona, he said.

But health care is just one of the many sectors that could grow as Arizona sees more retirees. Sandy Markwood, CEO of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, said the purchasing power of people 55 and over will attract the attention of businesses, pointing to an increase in advertising directed toward seniors for health care and travel.

“Older adults hold a lot of the economic power in any community,” Markwood said. “So if you’re looking at 20, 25 percent of your population being over any age, that’s an economic driver.”

Housing is another business that could benefit from more retirement-age people, she said, as they downsize from family homes to housing with less space. Downtowns and urban areas become more attractive, Markwood said, because they are central hubs full of activity.

But with these opportunities come new demands and the need for both public- and private-sector adaptation.

Markwood said new housing demands will require new zoning policies to allow mixed-use developments so people can live and shop without travelling far, while Hart said Arizona will need new schools and centers to train people for health care careers.

Public transit is another area that could need upgrades, Hart said. Transit is lacking in Arizona’s sprawling cities, he said, and retirees could benefit from improvements.

“You need public transportation, in many cases, for people that simply cannot drive or are not able to,” Hart said.

Markwood agreed, saying that other businesses, such as ride-shares that allow people to rent cars by the hour, could benefit as well. Communities should plan their infrastructure with a focus on creating lifetime members, she said, rather than solely on young families.

“You can have the best services in the world,”  she said. “You can have home-delivered meals or adult day-care centers. But the bottom line is, if somebody comes home to their house that doesn’t meet their needs or doesn’t have transportation to get to the senior center, the quality of the life of that person is compromised.”