A Need to Look Ahead

Aedan Hannon with the Casper Star-Tribune, via the Wyoming News Exchange

The majority of Wyoming's 65+ are 'young-old,' according to a new report

 Wyoming is aging and aging quickly.

That fact is not new.

In 2014, experts urged state action to prepare for an impending “gray wave” in Wyoming. The state’s rapidly aging population is raising similar concerns almost a decade later.

But there is a silver lining.

The majority of Wyoming’s 65 and over residents are “young-old,” giving the state valuable time to reinforce its elderly and health care systems, according to a new report and data compiled by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Boston in partnership with the Wyoming Healthy Aging Coalition and the University of Wyoming.

While Wyoming’s aging population has yet to create challenges or strain the state’s infrastructure, Elizabeth Dugan, an associate professor of gerontology at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the report’s lead researcher, said during a Tuesday webinar that Wyoming’s communities need to look ahead.

“The time to act, to plan, to advocate is now,” she said.

A clearer aging picture

The Wyoming Healthy Aging Data Report has been years in the making.

Using a slew of federal and some state data, Dugan and her team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts Boston assembled profiles for each of Wyoming’s 23 counties as well as more than a hundred maps that track health indicators of the state’s aging population. The report provides a thorough picture of Wyoming’s older adults and their health. At the same time, it allows for county-by-county comparison, revealing differences in important metrics for older Wyomingites like health care access and chronic disease.

Among the report’s most significant findings is that Wyoming’s aging population largely consists of the young-old, or those between 65 and 74 years old. In every county the young-old make up the majority of those 65 and older, while statewide they account for 61% of Wyoming’s aging population.

It’s not a new revelation – other analyses by the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information have pointed to a dramatic increase in people between the ages of 65 and 74 years old in recent years – but it is significant for two overlapping reasons.

The first is that a significant number of Wyoming residents, roughly 1 in 10, will soon be in need of greater support as they continue to age and their health declines.

“In a few years that young age group may need services and supports that don’t yet exist,” Dugan said.

The second is that there is still time before their care becomes exceedingly expensive and challenging.

“Since more than half of Wyoming’s 65+ population is young and relatively healthy, there are major opportunities to allow residents to help make Wyoming an even better place to grow up and grow older,” Dugan and the researchers wrote.

Though Wyoming’s relatively young aging population is a benefit for the state, the report points to obstacles that communities and policymakers will have to overcome to meet the needs of the growing number of elderly in the state, including geographic barriers and socioeconomic disparities.

Wyoming’s “frontier” counties – those with fewer than seven residents per square mile – have a higher percentage of elderly than urban and rural areas with roughly 1 in 5 residents 65 and older. Yet, frontier counties have less access to health care and aging support, including fewer primary providers, fewer nursing homes and less broadband access, according to the report.

“In a state as geographically large as Wyoming, delivering services such as home health care or transportation can be expensive and logistically challenging,” the researchers wrote. “Innovations to optimize the health and longevity of Wyoming residents now will support the economic health of the state in the long run.”

Alongside geographic hurdles are socioeconomic disparities that make aging drastically different and unequal across Wyoming’s counties. According to the report, the counties with higher 65+ median household incomes performed best on the health indicators the researchers measured.

Teton County outperformed the state across 11 health indicators, more than any other county, followed by Laramie and Albany, both of which also have among the highest median incomes in the state. On the flip side, the counties with lowest 65+ median household incomes, including Carbon, Weston and Big Horn, recorded more health indicators that were worse than the state average.

A baseline for solutions

Wyoming is aging faster than the U.S. The state’s seniors swelled by more than 45% from 2010 to 2020, making Wyoming’s 65 and over population the fastest growing age group in the state, according to the healthy aging report and the Wyoming Department of Administration and Information. Though they can fly under the radar, seniors live in every corner of the state.

“This isn’t something that one county could ignore or not pay attention to,” Dugan said. “It’s something that everybody who lives in Wyoming has an interest in because it affects the state.”

That’s in part why Dugan, the Wyoming Healthy Aging Coalition and the University of Wyoming partnered to create the healthy aging report, compiling a trove of data that communities, local governments and state lawmakers can use to help seniors and improve aging in Wyoming. It’s also the first step in a broader initiative by UW researchers to build out the Wyoming Integrated Statistical Environment (WISE), an online hub that will put more data at the fingertips of local and state decision makers.

The value of the report is not just the data that it brings together on Wyoming’s aging population but how narrowly that data focuses, Tom Lacock, AARP Wyoming’s associate state director for state advocacy and communications, said in an interview.

“You want to have that list of granular data so you know where you’re at and where you can improve as a county [and] as a state,” he said.

“With data comes the ability to chart your own course a little bit,” Lacock added. “You have a baseline, a roadmap, that you can start to set out to determine where you want to go to improve some of those indicators.”

In Lacock’s view, as groups like AARP and state lawmakers and officials weigh the needs of Wyoming’s growing elderly population, the healthy aging report stands out not for new revelation but for a trend it reinforces.

“One thing that jumps out is just the pure enormity of the change in the demographics. In other words, we’re gonna get older fairly quickly,” he said. “In addition to that, we’re a state that has struggled with finding service providers to take on some of our home- and community-based services.”

The issue of long-term care for seniors has been a focal point of the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee’s interim work ahead of the 2024 legislative session, and it will feature prominently in the panel’s September meeting in Saratoga. Among the concerns groups have raised is staffing that state’s nursing homes and long-term care programs, including home-based services.

Action or inaction will have consequences for the state’s budget either way since Wyoming Medicaid is the largest payer for long-term care in the state and nursing homes cost significantly more than home care. With a rapidly aging population, the future of long-term care in Wyoming is a timely and necessary discussion, Lacock said.

“We can serve somebody with an average $1,800 per person per month with home services, or we can move them into a nursing home at about $5,000 per person per month,” Lacock said. “Do we have the [nursing home] beds and do we have the money to be able to do something like that if we’re not loaded up with the appropriate amount of service providers to provide those home services?” 

This story was published on Sep 16, 2023.



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