07/10/2011 01:51 am ET | Updated Sep 09, 2011

Addressing the Real Challenges of an Aging Population

The Census Bureau is doling out its 2010 data a little at a time, leaving cities, counties and demographers who count on the updated information to wait for their turn. Filling out the forms last year may have been an inconvenience to you, but the results are a highly-anticipated, golden treasure for me.

I need to know who lives where -- not in individual houses, but across communities. I cannot wait to analyze how the populations of our urban areas, suburbs and outlying exurbs have changed since the last comprehensive count in 2000. What am I so anxious to find? The latest data on baby boomers, whose numbers are 70-80 million strong!

You must have realized by now that baby boomers began turning 65 on January 1, 2011. If by chance you were watching the Rose Parade on last New Year's Day, you saw the Alzheimer's Association's flowery float entitled Boomer Express, sponsored by Pfizer. "It's Time to Face Alzheimer's," the backdrop read.


The Alzheimer's Association is masterful at capitalizing on windows of opportunity -- and President Obama signed the National Alzheimer's Project Act (NAPA) into law just three days after the float puttered across millions of television sets. Per the law, the Department of Health and Human Services is putting together an Advisory Council to oversee NAPA's implementation. With one victory behind it, the association is now pressing Congress for a research funding commitment with the Alzheimer's Breakthrough Act. With rising health care costs and the new wave of aging baby boomers who will live longer than their parents, the disease is expected to cost Medicare and Medicaid $15 trillion dollars over the next 40 years.

More than 200,000 baby boomers are already living with early onset Alzheimer's. The disease is America's sixth leading cause of death. For people over 40, the fear of losing one's mind could be greater than the fear of death itself. The loss of cognitive functioning and independence -- followed by the potential need to move into a nursing home -- are tangible fears for aging baby boomers. Many caregiving baby boomers have already watched with heartbreak as their parents' memories faded. Tireless advocates such as Maria Shriver, have worked closely with the Alzheimer's Association to garner support from lawmakers and to grant empathy to others whose families have been impacted by the disease.

What will the 2010 Census data tell me about how Alzheimer's will impact local communities? At present, 12 percent of people over age 65 -- and half of all people over the age of 85 -- have the disease. By 2030 when baby boomers are aged 65-85, projections estimate that 8 million will have Alzheimer's. Many members of the baby boomer generation will live to be 85-105 years old, and unless there is a medical breakthrough, up to 16 million could have Alzheimer's by 2050.

Health and aging policies are formed and funded by the federal and state governments, but programs are implemented in local settings. Whether in early, high-functioning stages of the disease or later debilitating stages, the communities in which people live need to accommodate and care for people living with Alzheimer's.

Previous census data and post-WWII migration tell us that most baby boomers live in car-dependent suburbs developed after the war, as well as in sprawling, outlying exurbs, built up in the last 25 years. Boomer moms and dads who have spent their 40s and 50s shuttling kids, and who may also be caring for aging parents, know that without their cars their daily duties in these suburbs and exurbs are impossible. For their aging parents who develop memory problems, taking away their car keys is a very difficult but necessary loss of independence and often a burden for the elder and caregiver. The driving issue is only one problem of Alzheimer's that cities and states will need to face over the coming decades -- and one that will effect more than just Alzheimer's patients. Indeed, many older people who have vision impairments will have to give up their car keys as well.

Apart from transportation outside the home, the need for assistance inside the home is a challenge which has not been solved for the next generation of elders. The CLASS Act, part of health reform's Affordable Care Act, is an effective step in the right direction. It allows employees to make voluntary contributions to a fund which they can later access if and when they need in-home assistive care.

Anticipating the aging of the baby boomer generation, some local governments have begun discussing how to create more elder-friendly communities. This idea is easier to envision for communities where residents can walk to the store, doctors office, place of worship, or exercise class. For the majority of the suburban locations where baby boomers reside, we need to get busy figuring out how residents will age in their neighborhoods.

The "Boomer Express" is unstoppable. It is time to face up to wrinkles, own gray hair and get busy supporting solutions to the real challenges of aging.