EDITORIAL: Welcome to ‘Geezerville’

YOUNG PEOPLE TODAY, they drive too fast yakking on their phones, just look at those tattoos and piercings. They’re prisoners of technology…. How can they possibly take care of me in the way I expect if they behave as foolishly as I did when I was their age?

This is not an idle question when you live here in the third oldest county in the state. And that rank is an improvement over the last census, when Columbia County was the second grayest county in New York as measured by the part of the population 65 and older. The only counties that had a larger percentage of old folks are Hamilton, in the middle of the Adirondack forest, and Delaware, in the heart of the Catskills.  Must be the something in the water.

The 2010 Census found that nationwide 13% of Americans have reached the nominal and probably outdated age of retirement at 65. New York State has just a slightly higher rate older citizens, which fits with the profile of the Northeast as the oldest region of the country. But here in Columbia County we’re way older than that. More than 18% of our neighbors are over 65. The number is growing, too, and the trend probably won’t stop for a long time to come unless baby boomers unplug their treadmills or stop taking their blood pressure meds.

There are local efforts being made to address this demographic shift. Earlier this year Camphill Ghent opened as a senior residence with what’s called a continuum of care, starting with independent living apartments and progressing through units that offer more support and services for those who need special care as they age. The Camphill units are designed on a scale and in a setting that make them an ideal model for older people who want a rural life without isolation. But the project is modest in size. Some facilities for seniors these days these days look more like instant cities. As welcome as they may be for those who need what they offer, they also represent an industrial scale of development with good things like jobs and economic activity, as well as unwelcome competition for resources and strains on the environment.

The county is taking steps to meet present demands with its plan to build a skilled nursing facility in Philmont to replace the Pine Haven home, now entering its fifth decade. The new, 128-bed facility will cost $32 million, with state government supposedly paying for most of the project. I hope the state makes good on that promise. A lot of planning has gone into this project, and while some neighbors have expressed concern about the site for the new Pine Haven, no one questions the need.

The statistics suggest that a lot of people in the county are going to need some kind of care, but there is no firm consensus about how much it will cost at the local level and how we will pay for it. Although the issue was not directly related, the decision last week by the Chatham Village Board points to some of the difficulties ahead as the community and society try to provide for the needs of an aging citizenry.

In analyzing the health plan costs for retirees, village officials determined that they could save thousands of dollars annually by switching to a new health insurance plan. But the change will require the half-dozen former workers covered by this agreement to pay more for medicines and healthcare provider visits.

Fortunately for all sides, the savings are large enough to allow the board to offer the retirees a lump sum to offset those higher costs. That seems like good money management by the village and a fair deal for the retirees. But it makes me wonder how much more efficiency government can get from private industry. What happens when, once again, all the choices are more expensive?

The plans for a new Pine Haven skilled nursing facility is one welcome piece of a larger puzzle, helping us respond to a flood of people who need some kind of special care. But it’s hardly enough. County leaders should ramp up efforts to plan for other services this large and growing population of 65-and-over residents are likely to need over the next 30 years. The county alone can’t solve all the challenges ahead, but the population trend reminds us that there is no way to ignore them.


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