‘Silver Tsunami’ Continues to Roll: Retirees pushing area growth

As the media darling of the Midwest, the Grand Traverse area’s population growth continues to outstrip other Michigan towns. Yet nearly all that growth is in the upper age range. Michigan as a whole is aging at a faster rate than the rest of the country, and this area is graying faster than the rest of the state. The median age in northwest Michigan ranges from 41.9 years in Wexford County to 53.3 years in Leelanau County, higher than the U.S. median age of 37.8, or Michigan’s median age of 39.5 years.

In 2015, 15.9 percent (1.57 million) of the state’s population was age 65-plus. By 2045, it’s estimated that 22.9 percent – nearly 2.5 million people – will be in that range. According to forecasts from the Institute for Research on Labor, Employment, and the Economy at the University of Michigan, by 2025 there will be 8,210 households in Grand Traverse County age 65-74. That’s nearly double the total from 2010, when it was 4,273.

John Sych, who works as a community planner for Networks Northwest and served as Grand Traverse County planner when the report first came out, said he’s not sure how that trend can be reversed.

“I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” he said.

Matt McCauley, the CEO at Networks Northwest, calls it the “Silver Tsunami,” though he said he can’t take credit for the term. He noted that in 2017 there were 138 more deaths than births in the region. Add to that the in-migration of retirees and the area’s population growth is nearly all in the upper age range. McCauley said the result will be felt in shifts in labor markets, social structure, health care and elsewhere.


What attracts people to the area? If the surveys and polls are to be believed, then Traverse City is one of the foodiest, winiest, beeriest and artiest towns in the country (see list below). The area’s beautiful lakes, hills and woods provide great opportunities for outdoor recreation. Those are all among the reasons it is attractive to vacationers, who later return to the area as retirees.

“When you think about a place to retire, it’s places you enjoyed visiting,” said Bob Brick, a Realtor with RE/MAX Bayshore Properties.


Brick said retirees moving or staying here are typically looking to downsize and they are looking for a central location.

“They usually want one floor, two-plus bedrooms, proximity to town – they don’t want to live out in the country,” he said. “For the older cohort, medical care is important.”

A tighter supply of such properties means finding the right property is getting more difficult and more expensive, Brick said.

“There’s always a monetary equation,” he said. “Traverse City is more expensive than other locations.”

Sarah Lucas, the regional planning department manager at Networks Northwest, said the variety of zoning and building codes in each township slow development.

“There are policy barriers with [some] zoning requirements,” said Lucas.

She said there are 16 units of government in Grand Traverse County, each with its own zoning requirements.

“Let’s make it easier to build what’s needed,” she said. “If a developer has to go through rezoning, many won’t.”

Lucas said any potential solutions, such as multi-family dwellings, small homes or new developments, inevitably bring up concerns from those homeowners already there.

“Layer onto that fear and stereotypes, fear of property values [dropping], traffic and community character being changed,” she said. “It’s difficult to have conversations due to fear.”


So if the Silver Tsunami is indeed rolling ashore, how to prepare? At the Traverse City Senior Center, solutions include renovating or rebuilding the center to better serve its clientele, which is being discussed by Traverse City’s commissioners. Lori Wells, the network manager at the Traverse City Senior Center, said one solution already in use is to offer a diversity of programs, on- as well as off-site.

“We have already outgrown our space,” she said. “We provide programs off-site like hiking, cycling and golf.”

The center services such a wide range of ages, interests and abilities that providing a diversity of offerings is essential, she said.

“We’re kind of a clearing house. It’s not just card games. We have something for everyone. We have classes and education, connections with services or other interests,” said Wells.


The healthcare needs of an older population require preparation and planning, said Dr. Kevin Omilusik, vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer at Munson Medical Center.

“Most of the health care money is spent in the last years of life,” he said.

One way in which Munson is preparing for the wave is through a geriatric training program called NICHE – Nurses Improving Care to Healthsystem Elders. He said working with senior patients includes providing reading glasses, improving lighting, even having walkers for elderly patients to use when they leave the hospital.

Munson has also been improving on or opening new facilities that serve an aging population, such as the 127-bed Webber Heart Center and the two-year-old Cowell Family Cancer Center. It has also been designated by the Joint Commission as a primary stroke center.

Omilusik said another way in which Munson is reacting to the needs of the increasing senior population is by having its providers go out into the communities they serve.

“As we become the facility we’ve developed we are figuring out what services can be provided in small communities,” he said.

Physicians in most specialties now travel to Munson affiliates in outlying areas like Grayling, Manistee and Charlevoix.


The desire of this population to remain in their homes as long as possible means coming up with more ways in which to help them maintain their independence.

One answer may be technology.

The Grandpad is an iPad-like device geared toward older people. It has many of the same features as other tablets, such as weather, photos, phone and email, in an easier-to-use package. Russ Knopp, co-owner and operator of Comfort Keepers of Northwest Michigan, said it also enables his caregivers to quickly and easily interact with clients scattered across the area.

“[The Grandpad] helps us do wellness checks without driving to Benzonia and back,” said Knopp.

Another aspect that could dramatically impact how long people can live independently is autonomous vehicles, Knopp said.

“Imagine a senior calls the doctor’s office. They say, ‘You have an appointment next Tuesday at 10. At 9:15, a vehicle will be in front of your house.’ That’s going to be here faster than we think,” he said.

Another aspect is CommunO2, an app that gives older adults a user-friendly high-tech connection to local organizations. The pilot project is being administered by the Otsego County Commission on Aging and is taking place in Flint, Otsego County and Traverse City.

“It’s easy, affordable, compelling and there’s help available,” said Dona Wishart, the executive director of the Otsego County Commission on Aging and point person for the project.

It is primarily geared toward preventing isolation among the senior population. It offers several services, including both regular and video calls and remote participation in local events, including religious services. Wishart said it is not a replacement for physical social interaction, but is meant to enhance it. Grant funding means there is no cost for this pilot program.

Dr. Omilusik said health care technology is also assisting its providers. Its telehealth program allows health care providers located across lower northern Michigan to interact with one another. And there’s more on the way, he said.

“We’re not advanced to doctor’s appointments on cell phone – yet,” said Omilusik.


While the retiree population will grow significantly in the next 30 years, the prime working age population in the state will grow only 1.7 percent. The overall percentage of the population under 25 will decline by 6.2 percent, meaning labor markets will tighten even more than they are now.

“I’m not sure if our difficulty is in attracting and retaining young people, however that is defined, as much as it is in attracting workers period,” said Doug Luciani, CEO of TraverseConnect, the parent company of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s a challenge to bring in skilled talent,” said Sych, noting that many local graduates leave the area to attend college and don’t return. “People are gravitating toward urban areas. That’s a global trend, and we’re feeling it too. Traverse City is a regional hub, a small urban area within a rural area.”

Knopp said the labor market is already a challenge and will only become more serious in the coming years.

“Hiring enough caregivers – it’s kind of scary,” he said.

Brick said that the aging of the community may actually make it more attractive to younger people seeking jobs.

“The more the population gets older, the more job opportunities there will be for younger people,” said Brick.

And it’s not just for retirees…

These are some of the other lists on which Traverse City has been touted in just the past two years:

7 Small Beer Cities that Deserve National Attention – Thrilllist

Most Arts-Vibrant Community – National Center for Arts Research

Best Coastal Towns in America (June 2018) – The Active Times

America’s Happiest Seaside Towns – Coastal Living

The Most Under-the-Radar Food Towns in America – The Daily Meal

The 20 Best Places to Go in 2018 – Money

23 Great American Small Cities to Visit in 2018 – TripAdvisor

18 Cities that must be seen in 2018 – Expedia

The Best Winter Getaway in Every State – U.S. News

#1 Foodie Destination in the Midwest Region – Reward Expert

50 Best Beaches in America – credit.com

2017’s Best Beach Towns to Live In – WalletHub

100 Best Destinations Around the Word in Four Seasons – National Geographic

12 of the Most Underrated Food Cities in America – BuzzFeed

Top 10 Cities for Wine Snobs – Travel Channel