John O'Connor

It’s hardly breaking news that we live in an aging nation. But a look inside the latest round of numbers might give providers more reason to feel optimistic about remaining solvent once the age wave hits.

As many operators are already well aware, the number of people aged 65 or older is expected to grow to 84 million in the upcoming decades, according to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

But the real wheelhouse for most long-term care communities is the 85-plus cohort. That’s because – surprise! – this group accounts for the overwhelming majority of people requiring skilled care and other senior living-related services.

And as most operators already know, the projections here — at least from a market growth perspective — are quite encouraging. As last week’s report noted, the total will nearly double by 2036 (to 8.9 million) and double again by 2049 (to 18 million). By 2050, those aged 85 and over are projected to account for 4.5% of the nation’s population, up from 2.5% in 2030.

But not everyone is thrilled to see this shift. The dismals’ list includes a growing army of economists who are fretting about the age wave’s impact on the larger economy. Chief among their concerns are that this redistribution will result in less spending, savings, output and growth.

Some of these counters also worry that without a jump in fertility rates, a reduced number of working age Americans will be around to finance social programs. By 2030, there will be 35 people 65 years old and up for every 100 working-age Americans (18 years old to 64). That’s quite an increase from the 21 in 2010, not to mention the 17 in 1970.

It’s a fair concern. But what tends to be overlooked in these discussions is a growing chasm between workers who are highly skilled and others who are not. It’s entirely reasonable to expect that in the future we’ll see more highly-educated older people continuing to work and pay taxes long after they turn 65.

This is likely to give operators two tremendous benefits. The first, obviously, is that these still-active seniors will be paying into the programs that help providers stay in business, such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

The second is that they will also be in a better position to defray and perhaps even cover the costs of their own care.

So maybe the future won’t be so terrible after all.