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'Silver tsunami' set to hit Utah as older Utahns start to outnumber preschoolers

MILLCREEK — It's Wednesday, which means it's time for the ladies' weekly bridge game at Millcreek Community Center.

When the community center opened last year, the bridge group, which started more than 50 years ago, decided to move its weekly gathering from members' homes to the facility at 2266 E. Evergreen.

"For most of us, it took a little doing to make lunch for eight people — that and clean your house," said Barbara Patrick, a retired nurse now in her 80s. So the group now eats lunch at the center's Cafe Evergreen and then moves into a meeting room to play bridge.

The women, most in their 80s, all drive to the center. Some of the women are caregivers to husbands who have dementia or other illnesses, so the game is a welcome respite. But it is mostly an opportunity to stay connected and engaged.

Upstairs, John Fehlman and Bill Garwood, who are brothers-in-law, are hanging out in what Millcreek active aging center program assistant Judy Madsen affectionately calls "the man cave."

The men, both retired, visit the community center regularly to eat lunch and play pool.

Fehlman said he appreciates having a place close to home that has recreational activities and provides an opportunity to "get out of the house," noting today's seniors approach aging far differently than their predecessors.

"We're not working ourselves to death like our fathers or grandfathers did," he said.

In fact, seniors are living longer than ever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The trend holds across age and gender, although life expectancy for women, 80.6 years, is about five years longer than men.

Salt Lake County Human Services director Lori Bays describes the demographic shift as a "silver tsunami" that brings with it financial challenges, including a coming deficit for food programs that serve seniors.

Utah, which is better known for its bumper crop of children, now has more seniors 65 and older than preschool-age children, according to census data.

The number of Salt Lake County residents age 60 and up is expected to surpass the school-age population by 2033, according to population projections. By 2050, the number of seniors 60 and older will exceed the county's schoolage children.

The demographic shift poses significant challenges for the county's Division of Aging and Adult Services, which offers nutrition programs and operates facilities where seniors can recreate, learn and mingle, among other services.

Demands on county nutrition programs for seniors — Meals on Wheels and meals served at county-run community centers — are already increasing, Becky Kapp, director of the Division of Aging and Adult Services, told the County Council this past week.

Meals on Wheels delivers about 1,300 meals a day to seniors in Salt Lake County, with an average of between 35 and 40 new clients signing up each week.

"If that trend continues, we will have a deficit of about $38,000 by the end of the year," Kapp said.

Meanwhile, 4,400 meals are served weekly in senior and community centers and there is increasing demand for those meals, too, Kapp said. If demand for services continues at the same rate, that program could also run a deficit by year's end, she said.

The programs are important because they help seniors remain independent and stay in their homes, Kapp said. A recent study by the University of Illinois found that one in 12 seniors does not have access to adequate food due to a lack of financial resources.

The division has new initiatives intended to help improve the nutritional offerings of Meals on Wheels. The program plans to supplement meal deliveries with fresh produce grown at Wheeler Farm and the Salt Lake County Jail's horticulture program.

Kapp said program managers have determined that some seniors share home-delivered meals with their pets. The program now distributes pet food to clients who are pet owners through a grant from Banfield Charitable Trust to help change those habits.

The division is continually reaching out to private and government partners to obtain services for seniors that help improve their health and quality of life, she said. This includes classes for caregivers and a respite program.

Many of the classes for seniors at Millcreek Community Center are taught by volunteers, Madsen said. The offerings range from book clubs, computer instruction and chess to fitness programs tailored to seniors' needs such as tai chi, chair yoga or an outdoor walking club. There are classes for caregivers and to teach seniors how better to manage arthritis.

Anne Polinsky, a member of the bridge group, said she also regularly uses the county library branch that is integrated into the community center. An avid hiker, Polinsky said she prefers to exercise outdoors than work out at the recreation center. At 71, she goes on two or three hikes a week.

While she believes the private sector must also provide housing and other accommodations that allow seniors to age in place, the county's programs for seniors are a boon to their well-being. There is no charge for programming specifically for seniors and there is a suggested donation for meals. Recreation passes for seniors are offered at a reduced rate.

The food is "exceptionally good," Polinsky said. She has high praise for the other amenities of offerings of Millcreek Community Center.

"They offer such an array of things. There really is something for everyone."