I was disappointed last week by the conspicuous absence of any mention of elders in the governor’s inaugural address. Despite the fact that between 2000 and 2025, the number of Vermonters over the age of 65 will double, despite the fact that the fastest-growing segment of our population is age 85 and older, and despite the fact that the population of Vermonters under age 44 will likely decline in the future, our political leader doesn’t seem to think that seniors are worth mentioning. Instead, in a state with the lowest birth rate in the country, the governor focused his inaugural address on children.
I have nothing against children. I have two of them myself, and I love them dearly. My husband and I have been heavily involved in public education in Vermont, as volunteers in the classroom, sports coaches, and members of parent associations and hiring committees. We know and appreciate the value of early education, good teachers and a well-rounded curriculum. However, the children who go to school today will have to confront the reality that as they reach adulthood, 25 percent of Vermont’s population will be seniors.
The governor is right to focus on making sure our children get a good education so they can get good jobs. We also need these jobs to support, in a real and concrete way, older Vermonters. We will need physicians, nurses, dentists and physical therapists trained in the field of gerontology, home health aides and home care workers, pharmacists, social workers, nutritionists, benefits counselors, insurance experts, home accessibility experts, exercise and injury prevention specialists. As the demand for these jobs increases, we can look at elders as “job creators” rather than simply users of the system.
The governor states that he wants college graduates to remain in the state. How about making sure these crucial and rewarding jobs pay competitive wages and offer tangible benefits, so our graduates can stay in Vermont, buy houses, raise families and “do good in the world” by working with their grandparents and older neighbors?
Vermont is one of the oldest states in the nation, second only to Maine, with a median age five years greater than the national average. If we put our heads in the sand and ignore the coming “silver tsunami,” the cost of our health and long-term care systems will skyrocket even more than it might otherwise. While many elders will continue to work out of desire and necessity, others will need varying levels of supports to remain at home in our communities.
We must plan now to ensure that the needs of future elders are met in a cost-effective, efficient and compassionate way. In short, we need to prepare our children not just for careers in science, technology, engineering and math (the governor’s priorities) but also for the human side of these careers, where their work can help support a growing population of elder Vermonters who will add to the diversity, strength and vitality of Vermont.
Beth Stern, of Marshfield, is executive director of Central Vermont Council on Aging.
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