Economic challenges, opportunities of northern New England's aging population explored

Economic Indicators Associated Press

Accommodating the needs of Northern New England's aging population is both a struggle and a potential source for economic growth, speakers at a three-state summit said Tuesday.

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The median age in Maine — 43.9 years — is the nation's highest, and Vermont and New Hampshire are right behind. With that in mind, policy makers, business leaders and others from all three states gathered for a daylong conference to discuss their common challenge in meeting the health care, housing, transportation and other needs of their older residents.

Economic experts described tight housing markets in which older residents looking to downsize to smaller homes compete with young workers just starting out. And they said the region faces looming crises in local governance and education, with not enough residents to run local governments and not enough children to fill schools that were built for baby boomers. The latter is going to force tough conversations about consolidation, said Steve Norton, director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies.

"It's going to precipitate, I think, a profound re-thinking of what communities are going to look like," he said. "There may be a huge opportunity to rethink the concept of land use in our communities.

Charles Colgan, professor of public policy at the University of Southern Maine, said he also sees economic opportunities in the aging population. From new health monitoring gadgets to driverless cars, there are industries in which the region could become a player if it manages to attract more workers, he said.

"It's not all about the problems that will be created by the aging society, it's partly about how we actively reshape our society," he said. "A lot of that is going to be in health care, a lot of it is going to be in social services, but a lot of it also better be in things like transportation and technology innovation if we're going to have any kind of economic growth opportunities that will be more than just simply taking care of a declining population."

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Participants also heard from Maine House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat from North Berwick, who has led a comprehensive effort to ensure that more seniors can remain in their homes and communities. He plans to introduce a package of bills that would further increase property tax credits for some seniors, increase Medicaid reimbursements to home health care workers and approve a $65 million bond to build 1,000 apartments for senior citizens across the state.

"We really have an opportunity to do something special in Maine and lead the way for the rest of the country," He said. "The goal is to think about (aging) as an asset, as an opportunity."

The conference was convened by New Hampshire's Endowment for Health and the Maine Council on Aging.