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Originally published Sunday, May 16, 2010 at 4:00 PM

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Guest columnist

Changes are needed as baby boomers become golden boomers

Society needs to make some changes in its expectations as the population of senior citizens grows in the next few years, writes guest columnists Dave Earling and Deborah Knutson.

Special to The Times

WE are fast approaching a demographic tsunami of older adults in every community across America. Nationally, the number of older adults will increase by 15 million over the next 10 years.

As baby boomers mature into golden boomers, older adults in Puget Sound will represent 23 percent of the region by the end of this decade. The population of seniors in Snohomish County will double, adding an additional 100,000 people over the age of 60 (about the size of Everett). In the near future, there could be more walkers per capita than baby strollers.

The good news is that the next generation of retirees could be the healthiest, longest lived, best educated and most affluent in history. Many seniors are going to live well, fully benefiting from a strong pension plan or successful investment portfolio. However, this future will not be shared by all.

The percentage of workers who are confident about having enough money to live comfortably in retirement has dropped significantly, to an all-time low of 13 percent. Nearly one half of today's pre-retirees expect to work into their 70s. Most seniors today do not look at their retirement as the "golden years."

What about an aging population that outlives its personal savings and investments? What about the needs of people who live a quarter of century or more after retirement and need help with everyday life? Lacking easy answers, some have suggested seniors are a drain on our limited resources. Whether it is Social Security or Medicare, one only has to turn on the TV to hear about entitlements and government spending — elders are viewed as a population we cannot afford and have little to contribute.

Organizations across the nation that work with seniors know nothing could be further from the truth. Senior Services of Snohomish County is a nonprofit organization that serves more than 35,000 older adults, people with disabilities and their families each year. For more than a generation, we have responded to the needs of an aging population by providing safe and affordable housing, Meals on Wheels, handicap accessible transportation, and social and information services.

Every day we work with older adults — they are our neighbors, friends, parents and grandparents. These are the people who built our towns and cities, who fought our wars — from World War II to Vietnam. They have worked hard over a lifetime supporting their families and their communities. And when they ask for assistance, their strongest wish is to remain as self-sufficient and independent as possible — traits that America was built on.

Each and every one of us has a role to play in ensuring that older people, regardless of their income, have the opportunity to live with independence and dignity. We need to make a fundamental shift in our expectations to meet the challenges ahead. Speaking for an organization dedicated to the quality of life of older adults:

• We expect elders to actively engage in their community.

• We expect people to save for their retirement.

• We expect everyone to take care of their health — (yes we are talking diet and exercise).

• We expect the faith community to teach respect and compassion for elders.

• We expect government to respond to people's needs.

• We expect individuals and businesses to share their resources.

• We expect nonprofit organizations to use these resources efficiently and effectively.

Only when we have made these commitments will we truly be a community that embraces our elders. We are committed to fulfilling our role, and we invite you to join with us in meeting this challenge.

Dave Earling, left, is president of the Senior Services board of directors. Deborah Knutson is president of the Economic Development Council of Snohomish County.

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