'Silver tsunami' set to hit Utah as older Utahns start to outnumber preschoolers

Published: Sunday, May 25 2014 12:40 a.m. MDT

Arlene Egbert laughs with friends while eating lunch at Millcreek Senior Center in Salt Lake City Wednesday, May 21, 2014.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

MILLCREEK — It's Wednesday, which means it's time for the ladies' weekly bridge game at Millcreek Community Center.

When the community center opened last year, the bridge group, which started more than 50 years ago, decided to move its weekly gathering from members' homes to the facility at 2266 E. Evergreen.

"For most of us, it took a little doing to make lunch for eight people — that and clean your house," said Barbara Patrick, a retired nurse now in her 80s. So the group now eats lunch at the center's Cafe Evergreen and then moves into a meeting room to play bridge.

The women, most in their 80s, all drive to the center. Some of the women are caregivers to husbands who have dementia or other illnesses, so the game is a welcome respite. But it is mostly an opportunity to stay connected and engaged.

Upstairs, John Fehlman and Bill Garwood, who are brothers-in-law, are hanging out in what Millcreek active aging center program assistant Judy Madsen affectionately calls "the man cave."

The men, both retired, visit the community center regularly to eat lunch and play pool.

Fehlman said he appreciates having a place close to home that has recreational activities and provides an opportunity to "get out of the house," noting today's seniors approach aging far differently than their predecessors.

"We're not working ourselves to death like our fathers or grandfathers did," he said.

In fact, seniors are living longer than ever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The trend holds across age and gender, although life expectancy for women, 80.6 years, is about five years longer than men.

Salt Lake County Human Services director Lori Bays describes the demographic shift as a "silver tsunami" that brings with it financial challenges, including a coming deficit for food programs that serve seniors.

Utah, which is better known for its bumper crop of children, now has more seniors 65 and older than preschool-age children, according to census data.

The number of Salt Lake County residents age 60 and up is expected to surpass the school-age population by 2033, according to population projections. By 2050, the number of seniors 60 and older will exceed the county's schoolage children.

The demographic shift poses significant challenges for the county's Division of Aging and Adult Services, which offers nutrition programs and operates facilities where seniors can recreate, learn and mingle, among other services.

Demands on county nutrition programs for seniors — Meals on Wheels and meals served at county-run community centers — are already increasing, Becky Kapp, director of the Division of Aging and Adult Services, told the County Council this past week.

Meals on Wheels delivers about 1,300 meals a day to seniors in Salt Lake County, with an average of between 35 and 40 new clients signing up each week.

"If that trend continues, we will have a deficit of about $38,000 by the end of the year," Kapp said.

Meanwhile, 4,400 meals are served weekly in senior and community centers and there is increasing demand for those meals, too, Kapp said. If demand for services continues at the same rate, that program could also run a deficit by year's end, she said.

The programs are important because they help seniors remain independent and stay in their homes, Kapp said. A recent study by the University of Illinois found that one in 12 seniors does not have access to adequate food due to a lack of financial resources.

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