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Utah's senior population is on the rise and predicted to make up 13 percent of the population by 2030, according to a report released Monday by the Utah Foundation.
"There's currently no statewide plan to address this growing population," said Melissa Proctor, foundation research analyst and author of the report.
She said that was one of the most "striking" findings of the study, which she and her team conducted at the request of the Mountainland Association of Governments, which plans to approach the Legislature with funding requests for Meals on Wheels and caregiver services in the upcoming session.
She said the large population of baby boomers is approaching age 65, and many of them will be in need of caregivers, additional transportation services and nutrition programs.
"Transportation services for seniors are scarce, especially in rural areas of the state," she said. "There's really a growing mobility mismatch between Utah seniors, most of whom live in suburban and rural areas in the state, and a lack of public transportation."
She said that's one element the state needs to consider, along with ensuring nutrition programs are "well-funded moving forward."
However, she said aging services, which provide help to caregivers are also "critical."
The analysis reported that in Utah, there are 336,000 caregivers, but fewer than 1 percent of them use state or local support services.
Jenelle O'Meara and her family were caregivers for her grandfather for 14 years after he was paralyzed at age 57.
She says there was a collaborative effort between her family and trained professionals who helped him, such as his therapists and CNAs who visited their home. They were connected through aging services.
"We couldn't have done it without Davis County aging services," O'Meara said.
She and her family were able to find help through multiple state programs.
"My mom's got a bad back, and so the biggest thing they did was they'd come in and do my grandpa's showers," she said. "That was the biggest help."
She said her grandfather was on blood-thinner medication, and another helpful service provided to her family was that someone would come to their home to test his blood each month so he didn't have to travel to a doctor's office or lab.
"I know how hard it was for my mom to transfer him in and out of a car, and then lift his wheelchair," she said, "so that was a really nice service that they did through Davis County aging [services]."
O'Meara said she is glad they were connected with aging services because "they knew about resources that we really wouldn't know about."
"You don't know the questions to ask," she said. "They were really good about coming out and checking on him, making sure he was happy, that he wasn't depressed."
But the elderly aren't the only ones whose level of happiness is affected by aging.
The study shows that more than half of Utah caregivers feel stressed because of their responsibilities and by trying to balance work and family and a third experienced health problems.
Proctor said most caregivers are working middle-aged women who are still raising children of their own.
"A woman who works full time and has a couple of teenage kids, who's also trying to take care of her aging mother who lives somewhere else often she doesn't have two hours to herself to be able to go to the dentist or to be able to go to the doctor," she said. "Caregivers are often called the hidden patients because they don't take very good care of themselves. They spend so much time and energy taking care of their aging parent or an aging loved one that they end up neglecting their own health."
That's why caregivers and state or local programs to provide them with relief are so important, Proctor said. Though they need assistance, staying at home helps them retain a sense of independence.
"By keeping seniors in their own home, not only is that where they want to be, [but] it keeps them out of facility-based care," Proctor said. "It keeps them out of assisted-living centers, nursing facilities, which is potentially costly for the state as well."
O'Meara agreed that keeping the elderly in their own homes or in homes of loved ones is the better option.
"It would have killed my parents financially if we didn't have the help that we had," she said. "I think it makes much more sense financially and for the family to take care of each other instead of paying some doctor in some warehouse. I mean that's my personal opinion. My grandpa was no piece of cake to take care of, but I'm sure my whole family would do it again in a heartbeat."