Healthy Aging report highlights factors influencing health and wellbeing for those over 65
Wyoming's population is aging fast. The number of people 65 and older has increased nearly 50 percent in the last decade — far outpacing every other age demographic.
A new report from the Wyoming Healthy Aging Coalition compiles data about this rapidly growing population. It pulled together 130 indicators of health and wellbeing, covering a vast range of metrics about Wyoming's oldest residents and the resources they need — from the prevalence of chronic conditions to the degree of internet access to the affordability of housing.
An online tool allows anyone to compare their individual county with other counties in Wyoming.
Virginia Vincenti is a family and consumer professor emeritus from the University of Wyoming. She said the report should inspire immediate action from both communities and lawmakers to address the barriers standing between older residents and healthy, happy lives. But it should also inspire more long-term thinking.
"If you don't invest in the long-term solutions, then it's only going to get worse as our aging population gets to be a larger and larger percentage of our state residents," she said.
The Wyoming Healthy Aging Data Report follows similar reports conducted and maintained in other states. The goal is to pull together every conceivable metric of use to older residents, healthcare facilities, government agencies and others who serve the elderly.
Vincenti's interest in the societal and material challenges posed by a rapidly aging population grew out of her own research on elder financial abuse.
"(That abuse) is not just about how people interact, person-to-person in a family, that leads to abuse and exploitation," she said. "It's the influences from the professionals that work with the various people in their family. It's the socio-economic environment. It's the ageist attitudes that are pretty pervasive in our society. It's a lot more complicated than just looking at the micro-picture."
The whole country is getting much older on average. Wyoming especially so, since a majority of young people move out of the state. That means more people needing healthcare facilities and fewer people around to staff them.
"The more older people we have, the more services we're going to need — at least when they get to the point where they need services," Vincenti said.
Older people tend to rely more heavily on healthcare facilities and other social services. But having more old folks can also benefit a community. Retirees, especially those on the younger side, have more time for volunteering with nonprofits, meaning they play a crucial part in providing some social safety net services like food pantries.
Vincenti said she wants to see the state focus on reducing these burdens long-term by, for example, promoting healthy lifestyles to younger people. Vincenti said that's a bigger goal that will take a cultural shift.
"Our whole medical system is really built on a whole collection of businesses that serve illness, rather than provide preventive health care," she said.
If trends continue throughout the next decade, Wyoming will soon have more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 18.