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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 21, 2001

Numbers on aging are a sober warning

Buried in the latest data from the U.S. Census is a serious policy warning for local lawmakers and business leaders.

Hawai'i, the numbers say, is becoming an aging society. This puts statistical heft behind an issue that has bedeviled and frightened policymakers for some time:

How are we going to serve and care for our graying population?

The plain fact is that almost any answer will be expensive. Yet if the impact of our aging society is not dealt with today, we will have a social crisis on our hands in a decade or two.

On the matter of aging, Hawai'i has several distinctions:

• Our life expectancy is among the highest in the nation and is expected to continue that way.

• Senior citizens already make up a larger percentage of the overall population than the country as a whole.

• Baby boomers, the biggest demographic jolt in the entire population, showed more growth as a percentage of population in Hawai'i than in the rest of the nation.

• While the nation as a whole saw a declining percentage of its population in the 65-and-older category, the percentage of the 65-plus gang actually grew in Hawai'i.

What all this says is that Hawai'i's population is tilting to old, and will continue to do so at an ever-increasing pace.

That means issues of adequate healthcare for the elderly, long-term-care facilities, recreation and social services targeted to seniors will become increasingly important.

Yet for the most part, little has been done to deal with these looming problems other than hand-wringing. We are fixated with the problems of today to the point where we are ignoring the obvious and inescapable problems of tomorrow.

In the field of social welfare, Hawai'i has long been a leader. We were the first state to impose universal prepaid health insurance and have advanced other broad policies aimed at keeping our citizens healthy and cared for.

It is time that we become as innovative in preparing for our aging population as we have been for the working population.

A comprehensive plan of action for dealing with an aging Hawai'i must be high on the legislative agenda next session and must be an important part of the debate that will choose our next governor in 2002.