Part 1 of 6 - The older adult population is skyrocketing in one of the youngest states: Alaska

Building the TransAlaska Pipeline, and the ensuing economic boom, brought to Alaska thousands of working-age adults, who are now getting into their 60s.
Credit Alaska Department of Natural Resources

  By Joaqlin Estus, KNBA News Director

Anchorage, AK - Alaska’s population is young, the third youngest in the nation after Texas and Utah. But that’s changing.

If you laid out the ages of all Alaskans out on a line, the number right in the middle would be 34, younger than the national median age of 37. Speaking at the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) annual meeting in November in New Orleans, Virginia Commonwealth University Assistant Professor Dr. Steve Cohen said the number of Alaskans age 65 and up is growing rapidly.

“The population of Alaska more than doubled in last 40 years or so,” says Cohen. “The rate of increase of 65 and over was four times the rate of the rest of the United States. So the population, even though there aren’t a lot of older adults in Alaska, the rate of increase is much stronger, much higher than in the rest of the United States.”

That population boom of older Alaskans is expected to continue. Demographers project that by 2030, 20% of the nation's population will be age 65 and up. Eddie Hunsinger is the State Demographer in the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development says the percentage of older Alaskans is expected to grow from 8% in 2010 to 17% in 2030.

“We’ll see big increases for the senior population in Alaska,” says Hunsinger. “As of 2010, we’re at 55,000 senior Alaskans. We expect that to increase to nearly 150,000. That’s a very dramatic increase. We’re seeing it happen right now.”

Hunsinger says Prudhoe Bay is the reason for the sharp increase in the number of older Alaskans. “We had the discovery of oil at Prudhoe bay, construction of the Transalaska pipeline, and the subsequent oil boom,” says Hunsinger.

“A lot of folks moved here. When those folks moved here in the 70s and 80s, they were all working age," says Hunsinger. "We didn’t have a lot of older people. So we had a more dramatic shift between pre-baby boomers and baby boomers.”

Giving the keynote address at the GSA annual meeting, Dr. Bruce Clark, producer of the PBS series “Caring for an Aging Society,” said, as time goes on, we’ll see a gender gap.

“We’re having a very interesting kind of ratio of men to women," says Clark. "Women are still outliving men quite substantially, though I think the gap is beginning to narrow.” Pointing to a Powerpoint chart, Clark said, “As you can see in the 55 to 64 year old category, about nine men for every ten women. When you get to the age of 85, there’s only about four men for every ten women.”

And where will we see these Alaskans age 65 and up? Alaska State Demographer Hunsinger says the distribution of older adults follows that of the general population.

“Most of the population of seniors are in urban areas. About 80% are in Anchorage, the Mat-Su [Matanuska and Susitna river valleys near Anchorage], Kenai, Fairbanks, and Juneau. That follows with the overall population. More remote areas have senior citizens but not that massive group.”

Gerontologists say the coming boom raises questions about the need for health care providers, assisted living and nursing homes, support and respite care for caregivers, plus the economic effects of a growing number of seniors living on social security, pensions, and savings.

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