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As the number of Utahns older than 65 has begun to boom in recent years, something unexpected also happened: The number of people in nursing homes actually dropped by nearly a third between 2000 and 2010.
That's according to a report released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Nels Holmgren, director of the Utah Division of Aging and Adult Services, offers some theories about why that happened, including more programs helping seniors remain independent longer and more alternatives to nursing homes, such as assisted-living centers.
"There are also a lot of cultural reasons" in Utah, he added. "We tend to have better informal support systems in terms of family, kids, neighbors and church groups. I think that definitely allows a lot of people to stay at home that otherwise would be looking at facility-based care."
The new Census Bureau report looking at Americans older than 65 noted that their population grew by 31.1 percent in Utah between 2000 and 2010 as the large baby boom generation started to enter that age range and people live longer. Nationally, the number of seniors increased by 15.1 percent in the decade.
But the number of Utahns living in nursing homes dropped by 29 percent, from 6,006 to 4,263. Nationally, the number of Americans in nursing homes also declined, by 19.6 percent.
The Census Bureau and Holmgren say part of the reason for this trend is the growing availability of alternatives to nursing homes.
"Ten or 20 years ago, there were many fewer assisted-living centers. Utah has seen a real growth in them," Holmgren said. "It could be that in the past that some of the folks who were served in nursing homes now have their needs met in assisted living."
Also, Holmgren notes that many programs are available to help seniors remain independent as long as possible. "Sometimes in the past, there may have been situations where people ended up in nursing homes prematurely because there weren't other alternatives."
For example, the state offers a Medicaid waiver for people who meet eligibility to be in a nursing home, "but who can still be safely and cost effectively served in their homes," he said.
State data show 1,900 Utah seniors receive services in their homes, allowing them to live there instead of going to a skilled nursing facility.
Another program serves people who may not be eligible for a nursing home, "but are potential clients to be in an assisted-living situation," Holmgren said.
He added that both programs "have had fairly flat funding," so by themselves may not be key reasons for reduction in nursing homes but are part of the mix.
State data also show that 10,000 Utah seniors receive meals delivered to their homes by local agencies and volunteers each year. Almost 20,000 Utah seniors eat at least one meal in their local senior-citizen center.
But Holmgren said, "I think part of it really is the culture of Utah. People feel strongly about helping family and friends and neighbors to stay in their homes."
Of note, the new census report says that Utah had the second-lowest percentage among the states of residents who were senior citizens in 2010: 9 percent. The only state lower was Alaska at 7.7 percent. Florida has the highest percentage at 17.3 percent.
That comes, in part, because Utah has large families, creating the lowest median age in the country. But Utahns tend to live longer than average and the state's high fertility rate has been dropping, so the state's median age and percentage of seniors have been rising.