Press "Enter" to skip to content

Orange County’s older population growing faster than data about their needs

A new report on the status of older people in Orange County reaches sweeping findings about problems such as hunger (tens of thousands of local seniors need food assistance), dementia (its prevalence is growing) and even loneliness (a hidden but important problem), but it offers just two specific conclusions.

First, the county’s older population is growing quickly. The county currently has about  495,000 residents age 65 or older, roughly 15.7% of the total population. By 2050, the county’s 65-and-up crowd is expected to nearly double, to 926,000, or 28% of the total.

Second, when it comes to the specific needs of that older crowd, nobody – not the county, not insurers and health providers that track health issues, not the nonprofits that work with older people and provided the information used in the report – knows exactly what they are.

That information gap isn’t trivial.

While nonprofits and others that work with older people collect data useful to their organizations, there is no single person or group in charge of monitoring how the county’s older population is faring over time. As a result, government agencies and others don’t always have a clear window into where to deploy money or services that might make life easier, or even sustainable, for at-risk older residents.

“We’re facing a landslide of human beings of people over 65, but we have no idea what to do about it,” said Jim McAleer, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Orange County, one of the nonprofits that financed and published the 2023 “Report on Aging in Orange County.”

“If we had coordinated data, kept in one place, you could know how big a problem you might have with, say, dementia or hunger. You’d know how wide the gap is, and where to direct your resources,” McAleer said.

“But, as it is, we don’t have that,” he added. “So we’re spending a lot of money on guesswork. And until we figure it out, we’re not going to be able to help people who need it, at least not as well as we could.”

The report acknowledges as much. Before diving into how local seniors are faring in five key areas – access to technology, nutrition, social isolation, transportation and housing – the report starts off with a section called “Nature and Limitations of Provided Data.”

That’s where the report notes that its conclusions are based on information from 18 different organizations, and that the data from those groups was wildly inconsistent. Groups offered different definitions on everything from where services for older people are offered to the time frame(s) for the information they collected. Some even used different rules to define “older person,” with some applying that label to people age 50 and older, others starting at 60, and still others at 65.

“Overall,” the report concluded, “there was a dearth of consistent and complete demographic data. As such, no inferential analyses were possible; outcomes could not be linked to demographic factors.”

That said, the report was able to piece together statistically viable glimpses of current problems and trends – some of which don’t seem like problems at all.

For example, the report suggests that local older people might be more likely to use the internet than older people in other parts of the country. “County-level data from 2021 indicate that 94% of older adults in Orange County have internet access; more recent data, as provided from one agency for this report, shows that nearly 100% of their respondents have the internet and can access WIFI at home and via their cell phones.”

Still, while the report could find statistics for smartphone use by older people nationally (61% own such a device and 45% use it to access social media), the report couldn’t find that same information for older people in Orange County.

The report also noted that technology use among older people varies greatly depending on race and ethnicity, and that the county’s older population soon will be less White, and less likely to speak English, than the current crop of older people.

“Given that nearly 45% of Orange County residents aged 60 years and older are minorities, with projected increases in the prevalence of older persons of color (2023 Census data), examining demographic correlates of technology usage at the county level is becoming essential.”

In other areas, even clear data didn’t necessarily portray a clear picture.

For example, the report notes that from June 2021 through January of this year, the number of older people in Orange County who used CalFresh, the state program to help feed people living in poverty, jumped 42%, from 54,404 to 77,367.

While the raw numbers highlight a dramatic problem – the number of older residents who need help getting enough to eat is about equal to the population of Tustin – it’s unclear if the problem is getting worse or if the numbers reflect a shift in the way free and low-cost food is provided. During the pandemic, as smaller food pantries closed, food providers stepped up their efforts in enrolling older people in CalFresh.

“I think what we can say is we’re starting to do a better job of identifying (older) people who are hungry,” McAleer said.

The section of the report that looked at social isolation and loneliness pointed out that, particularly for older people, emotional health and physical health are entwined. Men over 80 are at the highest risk for depression, and depression can accelerate everything from heart disease to dementia. Groups most likely to be at risk include people of color and people who are unmarried, the fastest rising sub-groups of older people in Orange County.

Still, the report noted that even if nonprofits and others were focused on isolation – and many aren’t – it would be a difficult issue to track: “Those most at risk are the very people most difficult to recruit into studies.”

A similar lack of information hindered the report’s findings about how older people in Orange County are meeting their transportation needs.

The report notes some national statistics – about 1 in 5 Americans age 65 or older no longer drives, and public transportation services around the country often don’t do much for people with physical challenges or trouble walking – but it offers little that’s specific to the county. Instead, it concludes by saying, “Obtaining both objective and subjective data on factors that relate to transportation, across the county, is necessary.”

Likewise, the report found that there’s no reliable local data on how many older people in Orange County are homeless. The report does note that for older people, housing insecurity can include physical problems that might make a house unlivable, such as no longer being able to use stairs or navigate a driveway.

On that front, data suggest a lot of local older people might be at risk of finding suitable shelter. The report says 148,000 county residents 65 or older have some kind of disability, including more than 21,000 who report a difficulty that impairs “independent living.”

But the biggest statistical finding, locally, is a rise in dementia.

Using a variety of measurements, the report found that more than 63,000 people in Orange County currently have dementia, either from Alzheimer’s or some other source. If you include people who are diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment – often a precursor to Alzheimer’s – the number jumps to more than 163,000, or about 1 in 3 residents age 65 or older.

Statewide, Alzheimer’s cases are projected to jump more than 21% over the next two years.

“The dementia numbers were astounding,” said McAleer, who works in that field.

“It’s not a bump, it’s a massive surge.”

Still, McAleer said his biggest takeaway from the report is this: “The county is facing a big set of issues related to seniors that we are not currently prepared to handle. We could start by collecting better data.”

Source: Orange County Register

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *