The prospect that aging baby boomers will place overwhelming demand on the nation's long-term care system may be at least two decades away, a report released Tuesday said.
Improved socioeconomic conditions and higher education levels among the baby boom generation have contributed to a decrease in disability rates, according to the report by AARP, the nation's largest lobbying group for older people.
Previous studies had predicted a substantial increase in demand for long-term support services as baby boomers -- the 76 million Americans born from 1946 to 1964 -- reach the ages of 75 to 80. The oldest baby boomers will reach age 75 in 2021.
"The baby boom demand for long-term care services is 20 to 30 years away," said Don Redfoot, an author of the report and a senior policy advisor at the AARP Public Policy Institute. "For the next couple of decades, there will be less demand for supportive services, so we can make some needed reforms and regear long-term services."
According to the study, the number of older Americans with disabilities and those receiving nursing home care has declined slightly over the last 10 to 15 years, despite an increasingly older population. About 1.8 million disabled elderly Americans were living in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in 1994, according to Duke University's Center for Demographic Studies.
By 1999, that figure had decreased to 1.6 million. Of those, 1.2 million were in nursing homes and the remainder were in assisted-living facilities, which provide a lower level of care.
"We have seen longevity increase by 1% a year and disability decrease by 2% a year," Redfoot said. "The period of disability and old age is being compressed."
Growth of assisted living and home health care, and increased familial and financial support, have led to a decrease in the number of disabled older people living in nursing homes, according to the report. Other factors include the greater availability of family caregivers and the narrowing of the ratio of men to women surviving into old age.
Nursing home usage rates have decreased steadily since the late 1970s, while assisted living has increased.
Many of the predictors for aging baby boomers appear optimistic, Redfoot said. More education, more financial resources and medical advances will help this generation maintain good health. However, other factors, such as higher rates of divorce and childlessness, complicate the long-term picture.
The drops in disability rates have been focused primarily on those with higher levels of education and wealth, according to the report.
"Not everyone has enjoyed declining disability rates, especially minorities and those with low incomes. Policy-makers should not shy away from addressing those issues," Redfoot said.
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In 2011, the first baby boomers will reach age 65; the last boomers will reach 65 by 2029. How the population is aging and where older Americans are living:
U.S. population 65 and older (in millions)
States with highest percentage of population 65 and older in 1999:
1. Florida: 18.1%
2. Pennsylvania: 15.8%
3. Rhode Island: 15.6%
4. West Virginia: 15.1%
5. Iowa: 14.9%
9. California: 11.0%