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Marcus Traxler / Forum News Service

‘It’s cultural’: South Dakota’s growing senior population is independent, healthy

RAPID CITY, S.D. — A first-of-its-kind report in South Dakota is taking the temperature of the state’s aging population.

“A Profile of Older South Dakotans” is a report from South Dakota State University Extension, which was written by Leacey Brown, a Rapid City-based gerontology field specialist who studies aging in the state.

Now, she says, is a critical time to understand the population. By 2030, 21.3 percent of the population in South Dakota is expected to be 65 years or older, which would be the largest proportion percentage in history. Earlier this decade, from 2011 to 2015, an estimated 14 percent of South Dakota’s population was over the age of 65.

Brown said the report serves as a call to action for the state’s decision-makers, with the hope to see older adults on a more broad basis.

“It’s really about how can we not only meet the needs of older adults but how we can utilize what older adults bring to the table to make our communities strong,” she said.

Much of South Dakota’s 65 and over population is still in the labor force, with 21.7 percent of people still working, above the national average of 17 percent. Between ages 65 and 74, 33.7 percent of people are working.

South Dakota is also above average with older adults reporting no disability. Almost 80 percent of the people between ages 65 and 74 report no disability, with that rate at 60 percent between ages 75 to 84 and nearly 40 percent with no disability at age 85 or older. Brown attributes that to many South Dakotans having a tough attitude and keeping themselves in adequate physical condition.

Brown said there are a few reasons for the expected peak in 2030 and then the 65-and-over population leveling off after that. After the 2030 peak, the estimated 65-plus population is expected to be between 19.6 to 21 percent of the population from 2035 to 2045.

She said children from the baby boomer generation were among the first to be expected to live through their very early years, as newborn death rates have decreased. She said baby boomers were born at a time when the medical community made advances in science regarding vaccinations.

In the future, smaller family size will lead to the numbers of individuals at 65 or older leveling off.

The state also has an interesting balance between older residents living alone and group living arrangements, such as nursing homes, mental hospitals or group homes. The state ranks No. 1 in the country in percentage of older residents living in group settings at 6.6 percent, but the state also ranks sixth nationally regarding people 65 and older who live alone, at nearly 31 percent. South Dakota also ranks fifth in the country among adults who die from falls at age 65 or older.

Brown said that she believes South Dakota has improved in recent years in helping older residents with home-based services, allowing them to remain in their homes and receive an appropriate level of care. Part of that, she said, was about doing a better job of allocating federal dollars to that service.

“We like our own places,” Brown said. “It’s cultural. We continue to maintain that home and if they own it, it’s cheaper. These folks likely have owned their home for a long time and it’s a big part of who they are.”

But much of rural South Dakota continues to deal with nursing home failures, in which providers can’t cover their costs to stay in business because Medicaid reimbursements aren’t adequate. Brown said that can provide an entrepreneurial opportunity to those interested in small towns.

“In a lot of cases, we don’t immediately need a high level of care,” she said. “We’re talking about laundry, snow removal, maybe help with a project or two. There’s opportunities for people to fill those gaps in small towns.”

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