This is it: the year that the first of the baby boomers, the largest segment of our population, are reaching the age of 65. But these 65-year-olds are in many ways nothing like their predecessors. With their increasing life spans and growing numbers, we at the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey (along with many eldercare agencies) have real concerns about how we are going to meet their needs in the coming years.
It was not that long ago that 65 was the age of retirement. People who had worked their entire lives would shift gears, pursue their hobbies, spend time with grandchildren, travel a bit, and maybe move to a warmer climate. With children grown and on their own, their responsibilities seemed few. Though they might tighten their belts, pension and investment income, along with Social Security, would ensure that their financial needs were met. They looked forward to a few happy years before advancing age and debility met them head on.
Does this sound like many 65-year-olds that you know today? Boomers about to reach 65 are looking forward to much longer, healthier lives. In the best of cases they are still working and volunteering, or otherwise being active. They travel, see grandchildren, and perhaps have a second home in a warmer climate. Some, on the other hand, are delaying retirement because the recession of 2008 decimated their 401(k)s and savings. Others have lost their jobs because of the recession, and are experiencing all the stresses that joblessness entails. And some may be taking care of grandchildren while their daughters and daughters-in-law work.
Their children, also affected by joblessness and the downturn in the economy, might be living at home (again!). And they very well may be struggling to help their own parents, well into their 80s and 90s, cope with advanced old age and economic insecurity. Clearly their lives, though physically healthier, may be filled with unanticipated insecurity and stress.
Currently, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 22 percent of the population is over 65. That number is expected to rise to 35 percent in 2030 and top off at 37 percent in 2050. The Jewish community on average is aging at an even faster rate. We tend to have fewer children, and consistent access to healthcare in middle age sets us up to live longer, healthier lives. The older we get, however, the more supports we need to maintain our independence and our sense of well-being.
The Jewish community of MetroWest has many programs designed to meet the needs of the elderly population, funded through a combination of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ allocations, agency fundraising, government earmarks, and significant grants from the Healthcare Foundation, the Grotta Fund for Senior Care, and others.
For example, to assist those too old to drive, Daughters of Israel, with funding from the Healthcare Foundation and in partnership with the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest, Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, JCC MetroWest, and others, started Metro Transport, a program that provides rides for the frail elderly and the disabled regardless of their ability to pay. With almost $2 million in operating and endowment support from the Healthcare Foundation and additional operating support from the Weinberg Foundation, the Wallerstein Foundation, and others, Metro Transport has since 2003 been a vital lifeline to hundreds of seniors in our community. But hundreds more could use the service if it were available to them.
In an attempt to secure the program’s future and position it to meet demand, an endowment goal of $3.5 million was set for this project. To date, $1.4 million has been raised, $1 million of which came from the Healthcare Foundation. Clearly more dollars are needed to secure the future of this project that could improve many of our lives or the lives of our aging parents.
But things are about to change for efforts like this, and not for the better. As boomers age and the population over 65 — and over 80 — swells, government funds are dwindling. The new Congress is talking seriously about eliminating earmarks, an action that could significantly impact local Jewish agencies. Foundation funding cannot pick up the slack and, in any event, is rarely meant to last forever. Foundations generally provide seed money for projects, help them get started and reach a point of self-sufficiency, and then move on.
So what can be done?
We must, as a community, look seriously at the impending needs of our senior population and allocate our energies and our funding to help meet them. Strategic planning is imperative to develop creative solutions and effectively allocate resources now and over the course of the next 20 to 30 years. This will not be an easy process. We will undoubtedly be forced to choose among worthy causes.
We at the Healthcare Foundation are forced to do this all the time. Although we award between $5 and $6 million in grants each year, the myriad of proposals that cross our desks forces us to make hard choices. Most of the proposals we read are from excellent organizations for important projects that need real support. It is no easy task to decide where our support should be placed.
Since its inception in 1996 when Newark Beth Israel Medical Center was sold to the Saint Barnabas Healthcare System, the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey has worked hard to improve access to quality healthcare for the most vulnerable members of the MetroWest Jewish community. Our support of projects for the elderly, the mentally ill, victims of domestic violence, and those with special needs has been constant. We look forward to future partnerships that support the health and well-being of our oldest community members.