The Graying of Central New York

Number of older adults in CNY grows faster than most cities in New York state. In Syracuse, the 65-plus population increased from 15,971 to 22,805 in 10 years

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

CNY is going gray—and faster than the rest of New York, according to a study from the Center for an Urban Future released in January.

The number of people 65-plus increased by 43% in Syracuse in the past 10 years. That’s the third-highest increase of any major city or county in the state. Rochester (64%) and Saratoga County (50%) were in first place for the increase in 65-plussers.

Between 2011 and 2021, Syracuse’s 65-plus population increased from 15,971 to 22,805, a bump of 6,800. The senior population in the city swelled from 11% to 15.6% during that time span. Most of those were people between 65 and 84.

The percentage of people 85 and older declined by 26% during that decade, possibly in part because of COVID-19. The state’s life expectancy declined early in the pandemic, dipping from 80.7 in 2019 to 77.7 in 2020, which indicates it was likely a statistical effect because of coronavirus. Despite this decrease in lifespan, the 85-plus group grew by 3% from 2011 to 2021, fast than the 1.8% growth in population.

Another factor that has skewed the population of Syracuse to an older one is the downturn in younger people. The number of those younger than 65 dropped by 5%, accounting for 6,000 people. Those factors combined mean that the Salt City’s population is older than it used to be.

One reason for fewer younger people in New York is the mass exodus from New York.

In 2021, more people moved out of New York (63.1%) than into it (36.9%), according to a report released by United Van Lines. New York had the third-highest rate of people leaving, surpassed only by New Jersey (70.5%) and Illinois (67.2%). The trend continues from 2020 (66.9%), 2019 (63.1%), 2018 (61.5%), 2017 (60.6%), 2016 (62.8%), 2015 (64.7%), and, the earliest year for which data is available, 2014 (64.1%). This data does not include people using other moving services or moving themselves.

The most recent United Van Lines study stated that the reasons for leaving New York included family (29.4%) and, for those with multiple reasons, reasons included retirement (28.95%); work (25.72%); lifestyle (24.28%); cost (11.69%); and health (7.02%).

The reason affecting older adults the most—retirement—is comparable to the one affecting younger adults, work, indicating that the declining population is not primarily driven by retirees moving to warmer climes. The exodus from New York doesn’t correlate with other northeastern states with equally cold climates. None of the New England states but Rhode Island have experienced more moving out than moving in.

Onondaga County has seen an increase in older adults correlating with Syracuse’s uptick: 29% in the past 10 years, accounting for 19,000 people totaling 85,000.

The swift increase of older adults in Syracuse and Onondaga County mirrors that of the state. A decade earlier, 14% of New Yorkers were 65-plus. As of 2021, that has surged to 18% while those under 65 decreased by 2.6%, totaling almost 3.5 million, a figure larger than the entire population of 21 states.

Typically, older adults need more community resources for healthcare and support in activities of daily living than younger people. That is particularly true for those with limited financial resources. The Center for an Urban Future report revealed that 21.6% of older adults live in poverty in Syracuse, trailing only the Bronx (25%) and Rochester (21.7%). Across New York, the rate of poverty among 65-plussers increased by 37.4% between 2011 and 2021, undoing years of declines in senior poverty rates. This may be in part explained as a statistical anomaly, as in recent years, those financially able to move out of state have left behind more older adults who lack the means.

Supporting older adults as their needs increases includes several strategies, such as providing more funding for non profits serving older adults; developing more options for affordable housing; and cultivating strategies to address social needs including transportation, food and medical care access, elder abuse and mental health issues.

JoAnne Spoto Decker, commissioner of the Onondaga County Department of Adult & Long Term Care Services.

JoAnne Spoto Decker, commissioner of the Onondaga County Department of Adult & Long Term Care Services (DALTCS), said that her department has been aware of the growth of the number of older adults Onondaga County.

“The core programming offered through DALTCS currently addresses the graying trend: caregiver services, assistance with HEAP and other income stretching programs such as SNAP and the Medicare Savings Program,” Decker said. “Expanded in-home services for the elderly addresses homecare and respite for those over the age of 60 years and who do not participate in the Medicaid program. Nutrition services oversees more than 25 senior dining sites located throughout the county, in addition to their expansive home delivered meals program and nutrition counseling. Complimenting nutrition services is a series of evidence-based health promotion programming designed to support the aging process.”

Other programs include chronic disease self-management, peer support for adults with Type 2 diabetes, chronic pain self-management, walk with ease and tai chi for arthritis.

Decker added that the NY Connects program offers options counseling to those seeking information and assistance on long-term care services and supports for people of any age.

“Adult Protective Services (APS), available to persons age 18 and older, involves intake, investigation and assessment of referrals of abuse, neglect and financial exploitation of impaired vulnerable adults who live in the community,” Decker said. “APS caseworkers develop service plans for eligible clients to remedy abuse or to address their unmet essential needs.”

DALTCS’  Senior Health And Resource Partnership Project (SHARP) provides to  adults 60 and older counseling and community-based services that promote physical and emotional wellbeing. These include care facilitation, aging assessments and services, mental health referrals and substance use counseling referrals.

During the pandemic, resources like senior centers closed or shifted to virtual formats. Many of these have restarted meeting in person or continue with virtual programming to address isolation.

DALTCS is also piloting ElliQ, a proactive, voice-operated care companion to foster senior independence and promote wellbeing.

Decker is not certain the “gray shift” will stay that way in CNY considering Micron’s coming $100 billion investment in the community, as potentially tens of thousands of new families will move to the area to fill the company’s new positions.

“Seniors will continue to be a vital part of our community and the Department of Adult & Long Term Care Services and Onondaga County government will continue to focus on supporting their needs now and always,” Decker said.