The Silver Tsunami: Local businesses that stand to grow as the boomer population ages

According to the Area Agency on Aging of Northwest Michigan (AAANM), baby boomers now account for 30% of the northwest Michigan population – more than any other generational cohort. Thanks to the region’s reputation as a popular retirement destination, the boomer population will likely only continue to grow in the years to come.

And while the area’s boomer-heavy demographic will eventually place major demands on local healthcare providers, nursing homes and retirement communities, there are many other businesses in northern Michigan that stand to boom as boomers age.

Here, we’re taking a closer look at a few local business sectors that are already seeing growth thanks to northern Michigan’s “boomertopia” status.

Who are the boomers?

First, a primer on the baby boomer generation. The term “baby boom” refers to the years between 1946 and 1964, when couples who had delayed having children due to the Great Depression and World War II reproduced in rapid, unprecedented numbers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 72.5 million people who fell into the baby boomer generation, based on birth years.

By 2012, rather than shrinking due to death tolls, that number had actually swelled to 76.4 million, thanks to immigration. The 2020 census will provide a proper update on the size of the baby boomer population, though the U.S. Census Bureau estimated last December that the size of the cohort was now likely around 73 million.

Currently, those who were born during the baby boom are between the ages of 56 and 74. By 2030, all boomers will be over the normal retirement age of 65 – a mass trend toward senior citizen status often referred to as the “silver tsunami.”

However, boomers are also shirking the idea of a normal retirement age. Boomers are generally healthier than past generations, which means they can work longer – and need to work longer, in many cases, to finance longer lifespans. Many boomers also saw their savings hit hard during the Great Recession, which has contributed to the need to work longer.

These factors together make the baby boomer population not quite like any other generational cohort in American history. As such, the impact that boomers have on the business world as they continue to age will surely be unique as well. The AAANM estimates that northwest Michigan’s population of people aged 60 or older will account for 34% of the area’s total residents, which means that the region could prove to be an epicenter for some of these trends.

In-home care

Perhaps no business industry in northern Michigan stands to see more demand as boomers age than in-home care. As boomers get older, more are going to require some level of care or assistance – whether it’s help with groceries, errands, and meal prep or around-the-clock caretaking. Compared to past generations, more boomers are opting for the home care option over other types of senior care, such as assisted living communities or nursing homes.

Knopp

Fifteen years ago, Russ and Leslie Knopp started their local Comfort Keepers franchise. At the time, Russ Knopp says home care was little more than a blip on the senior care radar. For one thing, home care agencies couldn’t provide much in the way of genuine healthcare services. For another, he notes that the seniors of the time – those hailing from the Greatest Generation – were “resistant to home care unless they absolutely needed it.”

“When we started 15 years ago, the only thing we could do was called ‘companion care,’” Russ Knopp said. “That was mostly taking care of making sure that the senior gets to their appointments, making sure that they’re taking their meds, light housekeeping, and those kinds of things. That was the extent of our service offering back in the day. Now, we do everything from companion care all the way up to having registered nurses in the home 24/7.”

Not only has the quality of care evolved, but Russ Knopp also says that most boomers are much more comfortable than their parents were with the idea of an in-home care service. He adds that, where those from the Greatest Generation were likely to “wait until they were really ill and really needed help” to call for care, boomers are generally more likely to start thinking about senior care early on.

“The trend now is that we’re getting people at younger ages, because they can see (in-home care) as a way to stay in their homes longer,” he said.

The changing landscape of in-home care – in terms of what it can offer, how it is perceived in the marketplace, and how much more amenable boomers are to it than previous generations– has already benefited the local Comfort Keepers office. Over the past five years, Russ Knopp says his business has consistently tracked year-over-year growth rates averaging around 10%. He says he expects that number to continue growing in the future, as more of the local boomer population hits retirement age.

Northway

The growth of in-home care in northern Michigan isn’t just about changing preferences. According to Amy Northway, president and CEO of Traverse City’s Monarch Home Health Services, research has shown that seniors who remain in their homes “tend to live longer, healthier and fuller lives as they age.”

In-home care has especially notable advantages for dementia patients, who can benefit from maintaining familiar routines in familiar environments. As more boomers enter their senior years – and as more seniors flock to northern Michigan for retirement – there is also a capacity issue at play.

“There is not – and will not be – enough room in assisted livings and nursing homes to meet the needs of the aging,” Northway said of the growing senior population. “Therefore, in-home healthcare is a necessity.”

2020 has introduced one other factor that is driving huge growth in the home care industry: COVID-19. To keep residents safe, nursing homes and assisted living communities have essentially gone into lockdown – to the point where family members can only visit in certain situations (such as if a loved one goes into hospice care).

Those limitations have led many older adults and their families to think twice about taking up residence in a senior community – and have kindled a new level of appreciation for what in-home care agencies have to offer.

“If you decide that the senior community is the absolute right thing for your mom, and you go to check her in there now, they’d say ‘Great, we’d love to have your mom move in here, but you can’t come and visit her after you drop her off,’” Russ Knopp explained. “That really has made our phones blow up. They’re ringing off the hook. So we’re trying to keep up with that, and we’re hiring more people every day, just trying to meet the need.”

McGarry

Comfort Keepers and its 200 local employees aren’t the only ones seeing a boost in interest from COVID-19. Cindy McGarry, business development and community liaison officer for BrightStar Care of Northern Michigan (another local in-home care provider), says the business is up 28% in 2020 alone. John Zimmerman, the company’s owner, estimates that the growth figure would have been closer to 50% had workforce availability been stronger in northern Michigan.

Therein lies the major challenge for growing the in-home care market in northern Michigan – or for responding to the needs of an aging population, period. The region has long struggled to maintain a big enough workforce to staff its massive service and hospitality industries, and that shortcoming could come to affect how much aged care is available for aging boomers.

To help fill the gap, McGarry is working with Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) to create potential new training opportunities for prospective caregivers. She’s also collaborating with NMC to introduce educational courses for older adults, not geared toward any specific degree or profession, but to highlight some of the information that seniors should be aware of as they age. McGarry notes that details such as healthcare directives and estate planning often get overlooked by people entering their twilight years, which in turn can lead to messy end-of-life decisions for family members and loved ones.

These two pieces – education for both seniors and potential caregivers – are things that McGarry believes could help build a more sustainable ecosystem for senior care (and for aging in general) in northern Michigan. The other big piece of the equation, she says, is Medicare, which currently does not cover most home care services. McGarry thinks the silver tsunami of boomers could ultimately be the thing that forces significant changes in the Medicare law.

Right now, Medicare covers what is called “home health,” or medical help for someone returning home following a hospitalization and/or a stint at a skilled care or rehabilitation facility. If the patient still requires medical care that they would otherwise need to stay in the hospital to receive, Medicare will pay for a service that delivers that care in the home.

What Medicare does not cover, McGarry says, is called the “home care” piece of it, which might include running errands, doing laundry, cooking meals, driving the patient to physical therapy, or other pieces of assistance that a senior recovering from an injury or procedure might need. McGarry believes that, eventually, Medicare will change in that regard – not because of growing compassion for the elderly, but because it is ultimately more economical to pay for both home health and home care than it is to pay for the alternative.

“I think it comes down to a safety issue,” McGarry said. “Medicare pays for so much, but they don’t pay for the part that gets the patient active back in their life.”

An inactive senior becomes weak, which becomes a “safety issue” ripe for an expensive hospital readmission, McGarry said.

“It’s much more economical to have someone recovering in the home and getting a little bit of help for maybe the first month that they’re there, versus having them go back to the hospital,” she said. “It’s essentially a cost-cutting measure for Medicare (to cover both home health and home care), because they’re moving the person through to the best outcome as opposed to a marginal outcome.”

Real estate

If boomers are going to be “aging in place” and staying in their homes in a way that past generations didn’t, it goes without saying that they need the right places to call home.

Brick

That’s where the local real estate industry comes in, particularly for seniors who are retiring to the area from somewhere else, or purchasing seasonal homes here to spend their summers. According to Bob Brick, owner and broker for RE/MAX Bayshore and Brick & Corbett, there has been a definite increase in boomers retiring to northern Michigan in recent years.

“They have time, they have money, and they want to be here,” Brick said. “For some of them, it might have been a place that they came and visited when they were younger. So we are seeing a lot of the elderly population as a significant part of the purchasers in our area.”

What types of properties are older buyers looking for in the area? Brick says that what appeals to boomer retirees can run the range depending on which factors are drawing them here. Those looking for summer homes might prefer to be near the water. Those moving to northern Michigan to be closer to family might look for houses in the same neighborhoods as family members.

For the most part, retirees are eyeing condos closer to town, drawn by amenities like restaurants, social activities and recreational features like the TART Trail.

“Urbanism is becoming more popular again, versus suburbanism,” Brick said. “If you’re coming from another place, you’re more likely to look at those urban choices because that’s where the infrastructure is.”

What Brick isn’t seeing a lot of is longtime local boomers deciding to downsize. While these individuals and couples have perhaps moved out of their “raising kids” days and are now empty nesters, Brick says that most of them are holding onto their bigger homes rather than hitting the market and opting for something smaller and more manageable like a condo.

Brick points to two main reasons why downsizing isn’t a huge trend among local boomer homeowners – at least not yet. First, he flags the cost of selling a house and buying another property as a major barrier.

“It’s expensive to sell and it’s expensive to buy,” he said. “Even if you’re downsizing, you’re typically going to have more expenses of maintenance, upkeep, taxes, insurance and stuff like that. Downsizing doesn’t always get rid of that for you.”

Second, Brick notes that condos, while a popular option for boomers retiring here from elsewhere – as well as a major piece of recent local property development activity – are actually in short supply.

“We don’t have as many (condo) units as we could absorb,” Brick said. “They’re really expensive to put up.”

Condominiums require lots of infrastructure such as sewer, water, gas, electricity and cable, which Brick says in Traverse City proper “is not that big.”

“The city sewer and capacity for water is a little bit limited, because of rivers and lakes and bays and things like that,” he said. “So maybe we missed a little bit of the supply curve here with the units available and the retirees that want them.”

Hobbies and leisure

How can boomers fill their retirement years with fun and fulfilling activities? The answers will surely vary for every person, but there are definite trends about the types of hobby and leisure activities that boomers love. A big one? Electric bikes. According to Dan Marsh, who opened a Traverse City store for the electric bike brand Pedego in June, boomers are the company’s bread and butter.

“Pedego has been around since 2008 and they sell more e-bikes than anybody else in North America,” Marsh said. “It’s a company that was started by boomers, and still to some degree they market to boomers. That’s starting to change a little bit. We are getting ready to take delivery of a new bike model that is geared toward a younger demographic. But the average age of our customers is definitely retirement and past, 50-plus for sure.”

That boomer identity has been vital to the Pedego DNA from the start. The company’s two founders, Don DiCostanzo and Terry Sherry, were both in their early 50s when they started the company in 2008. The spokesperson for Pedego is William Shatner, the 89-year-old actor known for originating the role of Captain James T. Kirk in the original Star Trek TV series. As of 2016, 95% of Pedego store owners and 80% of bike buyers were boomers.

Marsh says electric bikes are a draw for a wide range of older adults, including couples looking for something fun to do together outdoors and people who have had hip or knee replacements seeking a new form of exercise.

A similar promise of new adventure is also driving growth in the recreational vehicle market. Cody Scott, the sales manager for TCRV, says that boomers are an increasingly large segment of the customer traffic that the local RV dealer serves.

“The last decade or so, we have definitely seen an increase of sales to people that are of retirement age,” Scott said. “It’s all across the board, too, from the smallest units to the big fifth wheels. Most of these folks, since a very young age, have been campers – with their parents, at deer camp, etc. So it only makes sense (for them) to pursue this lifestyle into retirement.”

While Scott expects that many boomers are buying RVs and using them as a means of exploring the country and seeing the sights, he also knows that some are opting for RVs in lieu of purchasing summer homes or cottages locally.

“A lot of folks have purchased an RV and put it on a seasonal site somewhere here in northern Michigan, so they can summer here and winter somewhere warm,” Scott said.

Boomers also tend to be the lifeblood of nonprofit organizations and other entities that rely on volunteers. The 2019 Volunteering in America study, conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service, found that boomers put in more hours of volunteer service in a given year than any other generational cohort. Studies have also shown that boomers are the leading generation in terms of charitable giving, making them a crucial part of the nonprofit ecosystem.

According to Karen Schmidt, board chairman for the Botanical Gardens Society (the nonprofit that manages the Botanic Gardens at Historic Barns Park) these trends are bearing out locally.

“The majority of our volunteers – gardeners, docents, grounds and maintenance – and the majority of members are retirees who now have time to dedicate to the garden, many in the boomer age range,” Schmidt said. “Boomers also tend to have more financial resources and are thus able to more generously donate to the garden. And because they finally have time to dedicate to their own gardens, boomers often visit our gardens and take our classes for information, ideas, and inspiration.”

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