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Philadelphia Senior Population to Boom

May 10, 2016

Philadelphia’s population will look dramatically different by the year 2050.

According to Michelle Sahl, PhD, associate teaching professor in the Health Administration Department,  “The senior population is exploding. By 2050 one out of every five six people across the globe will be seniors.” The trend is a worldwide one, but in the United States, it is hitting especially close to home. “Pennsylvania comes in fourth as a state (after Maine, West Virginia, and Florida) in having the highest proportion of seniors. Philadelphia, within Pennsylvania, has a particularly high concentration,” she said. “Couple that with the fact that by 2050, 75% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, you can imagine the volume of seniors represented within Philadelphia.”

Kristine Mulhorn, PhD, chair of the Health Administration Department, further illustrated the aging future of Philadelphia, “90% of the senior population between now and 2040 is expected to occur in urban counties in Pennsylvania.” Among the many reasons for the focus on urban areas is the availability of health care providers and infrastructure that is already in place to service a huge number of people.

The numbers are staggering, and with the imminent shift ahead, now is the time to start mapping out accommodations for the elderly to make city living safer and more manageable. For graduates of the Health Administration Program, Mulhorn and Sahl predict new opportunities will be born from this need as addressing the urban challenges facing seniors becomes an industry in its own right.

“There are health policy issues and urban public policy issues which our students are very well-versed in. They can get involved in community-based services, working in advocacy or in direct services areas. They can organize and run programs to advance neighborhoods into healthy communities,” said Sahl.

“In addition to the policy work, advocacy position and leadership roles in non-profit organizations, there will be roles in housing, recreational services and health services which focus on serving elderly clients,” said Mulhorn. “We expect that various home and community-based services dedicated to older clients will grow, and those persons working in health care who understand the range of services needed by those 65-years-old and older will also be in higher demand. Even transportation authorities in the future are going to have to have segments designed to support the elderly.”

Seniors living in Philadelphia face a unique set of challenges. Transportation, for example, is designed to accommodate heavy traffic during work rush hours. For seniors who need support getting around to doctor’s appointments, drug stores, grocery stores and more during the day, the bus routes and availability may be more limited. Curb cuts, street lights and broken streets and sidewalks pose safety threats, especially to those with canes or walkers. The timing of traffic lights may not be adequate enough for a senior struggling with mobility and balance to get from one side of the street to the other.  

A lack of participatory social environment and the pressures of gentrification can also be damaging to quality of life. “Seniors feel comfortable in their own environment, and if they can no longer afford to live there, where do they go?” said Sahl.

Mixed income neighborhoods are a possible solution the City will need to consider if it is to accommodate the elderly. “Mixed income is more likely to have mixed age and intergenerational communities, which are as helpful for the elderly as for the kids. City zoning can direct these initiatives,” said Mulhorn. Additional changes will be needed to address transportation and infrastructure.

Despite the federal regulations laid out by the Older Americans Act, which has been in place for decades to ensure funding for basic services, home maintenance and other things people need to be safe and healthy in their homes, City-wide initiatives to accommodate seniors have fallen short, though it’s not for lack of recognizing that it is a priority. 

“Budgetary issues and other challenges facing a city, like crime or the public school system, push something like this to the back burner. All cities are very aware of the issues, but most particularly those with a lot of seniors,” said Sahl. 

An understanding of these challenges is key to properly planning to accommodate the aging population in the years to come, and to ensure that urban areas are functional and safe for their inhabitants. “It’s a mix in any urban area between appealing to those with the cash to spend versus seniors who have real physiological and social needs on fixed incomes,” said Sahl.

By Margaret DeGennaro ‘12