042017 Aging: Young and old both have a stake in county's future
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Aging: Young and old both have a stake in county's future

By Nikki Best
Coastal Observer

It’s time to unpack the elderly.

Dr. Jim Johnson, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina, presented his program, “Six Disruptive Demographics That Will Change the U.S. Forever” at a chamber luncheon earlier this month. He tailored his presentation to offer a snapshot of demographic trends for South Carolina and for Georgetown County.

South Carolina is part of “The South.” This may seem obvious, but the term also refers to the larger region used by the U.S. Census Bureau. From 2000-2010, the United States added almost 27 million people to its population, and 14 million of them live in the south.

“We have never taken a back seat to any challenge in the South, and I don’t think this is the time to take a back seat,” Johnson said. “I think we need to stare these issues in the face and think strategically about how you can address these problems.”

These issues are the challenges of the future. Creating a competitive, enhanced community that eases the need for elder care and convincing retired, empty nesters that they have a dog in the fight when it comes to K-12 education.

“The way you handle and manage your demography is a core component to your ability to thrive, prosper and compete,” Johnson said.

Georgetown County is a destination for retirees. The numbers don’t lie, 23 percent of the population is 65 years old or older, and the number of deaths outnumbered births by 861 as of July 1, 2016. The county’s old age dependency is above 40 percent. This leads to a shortage of caregivers.

“I have three siblings,” Johnson said. “And until last year we had eight family members between the ages of 84 and 97 that we were responsible for taking care of.”

It’s 10:30 p.m., a 30 degree night in February a couple of years ago. Johnson’s 87-year-old, wheelchair-bound, visually-challenged uncle telephones from an hour and half away, and says his heat’s not working. He lives alone, he’s got one of those pinchers he picks things up with. It’s an older home, with an old thermostat. He’s the youngest guy in the neighborhood. The system was serviced two months prior, and the oil is definitely full. What’s happening?

He turned his heat off. But he can’t see well enough to realize it’s off, nor can he stand to reach thermostat. So Johnson drove to turn the thermostat on.

“That’s elder care,” he said. “And please don’t think it’s just us old fuddy duddies that have elder care responsibilities. Ten million millennials have elder care responsibilities too.”

It’s the kind of problem that makes you afraid to pick up the phone. With elderly loved ones, even when you do pick up the phone, “they lie through their teeth,” Johnson said.

That’s pride. Because a person who has taken care of themselves for more than 60 years, doesn’t know there’s a larger problem. When you’re that close, it’s impossible to see.

Step back and look: 40 million people provided unpaid elder care in 2011 and 2012 at an estimated cost of $30 billion in lost work productivity. A human resources system is in place that makes workers afraid to bring up a need for fear of reprisal. The fight for work-life balance and child care is still going on, but the one for work-life integration and elder care hasn’t even begun.

“I’m 63-years-old and you start talking to me about raising my taxes to pay for public education, I look at you, ‘I don’t have a dog in that fight,’” Johnson said. “Yes I do.”

In higher education, the ratio of women to men has been 60-40 for more than a decade. Male college completion rates peaked in 1977, and have barely changed in the last 35 years. In 2010, 572,000 more college degrees were granted to women than men. What happened to the men?

“It starts early with boys,” Johnson said. “You can use third grade reading scores to determine the next president and the next prison base.”

In the 2011-2012 the U.S. public school system there were 7 million children suspended, in- or out-of-school. About 250,000 of those were referred to police and received misdemeanor charges. Almost 70 percent of those referrals are for male students. A misdemeanor charge on a student’s record disqualifies them from ever receiving a scholarship or ever applying for federal aid. Kids who aren’t in school aren’t learning.

“You know sooner or later you’re going to age to the level where you need somebody to take care of you,” Johnson said. “You do want them to be able to count your pills.”

Only 27 percent of students who graduated public high school in 2010 did not require remedial work upon application to higher education institutions. These are the same people learning to work professionally in elder care.

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Georgetown County has an aging population, but that doesn’t mean it’s slow or tired. It’s not down or out. It’s not a dying county, the slow uptick of population proves that. There are more coming in than going out. Our biggest opportunity is figuring out how to leverage the economic opportunity that is available because of that population, Johnson said.

“That’s your competitive edge,” he said. “Create opportunities and create an elder care economy of longevity based on the asset you already have.”

Georgetown County could become the well-appointed, age-friendly destination on the Atlantic Coast.

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