A dramatic increase in the number of older Americans will cause major changes in communities across the United States over the next few decades. Most experts agree with this assessment, but few agree on what the changes will be. And fewer still know what plans may be underway to prepare for them.
Will there be sufficient affordable housing for people without children? Will the housing be convenient to shopping and transportation? Will communities have enough of the kinds of social services that specialists say many older Americans require?
A federally-funded study is examining 260 metropolitan areas to find out what America's communities are planning for the changes. Sponsored by the US Conference of Mayors and the National Association of Counties, the effort aims to learn ``what's going on out there - how communities are planning,'' says Larry McNickle, director of the study and director of programs on aging for the mayors' organization.
About a year from now, when the results are in, the two groups plan to bring them to the attention of local officials and citizens across the country. By themselves, the results may spur communities that have not yet begun to plan.
Mr. McNickle suspects that study results will show ``the need for greater collaboration in planning'' between the central cities and their suburbs.
Today some 28 million Americans, nearly 12 percent of the population, are older than 65. Both the number and percentage will grow slowly until 2010, when the first of the post-World War II ``baby boomers'' reach 65. For the subsequent 20 years, the population of elderly Americans will experience its greatest growth.
In the year 2030, according to estimates considered sound, 65 million Americans will be over 65. That's 2-half times as many as today. That would be 21 percent of the population that year.
Demographers, social scientists, and economists are beginning to try to alert American society to the need to plan for this major population change. For instance, economist Michael J. Boskin recently asserted, in his book ``Too Many Promises,'' that in terms of long-range impact on the social security program, ``we face the somber prospect of having to provide government financing for the retirement of a much larger percentage of our population for an ever longer proportion of their lives.''
Mr. Boskin notes that the full effect will be felt around 2010 and will last for several decades. But he says a solution should be arrived at soon, so that changes may be phased in gradually.
The mayors' study will not touch on social security, which is strictly a federal program. But the principle is the same: a desire to plan now for the future rather than be ambushed by its unanticipated arrival.
As project director McNickle puts it: ``Let's take a look at where we are and see how we go about planning and project it into the future, so that we can make the policy changes that facilitate people's independent living.''
In general, cities offer more compact and convenient facilities to older Americans, if they can afford housing. In recent years cities have begun supplying many more social services than they used to, and programs to deal with loneliness, hunger, or health, generally are within a bus or subway ride for older urban residents.
In the suburbs it's a different story, McNickle notes. Services for older Americans are spread out or are fewer. Many suburbs have little or no mass transportation.
In post-World War II America suburbia has spread further into the one-time countryside. Many who moved there as young couples have reached retirement: How well are the suburbs meeting their special needs now? And what are the plans of these suburbs to meet them in the coming years when many more older Americans will live there?
Suburbs themselves are evolving: Many have suddenly become mini-cities, with a flood of tract homes, apartment buildings, or business structures.
More such change lies ahead: What effects will it have on these communities' ability to deal with their older residents?
Nationally these are questions without answers, though some communities have been working on them. The study hopes to come up with responses, not through social research itself, but by tapping the knowledge American communities have and the plans they are making.
Approximately a year from now McNickle hopes to have results to let the public, and experts in aging and public policy fields, know what ideas communities have and how they are planning to put them into practice.
At the very least, the study should be a prod to all communities to look into their future and prepare for it.