Want to live independently into old age? An aging America needs to make some changes, experts say

In our eternal quest for long and health lives, new data shows America's getting the 'long' part right – average life expectancy is expected to climb to 85.6 years by 2060 – but as the number of elderly Americans increases, the number of disabled Americans has grown with it.

  • Some 40% of adults age 65 and older in the U.S. have a disability, according to the CDC.

  • Some of the most common fall under the categories of mobility, cognition and independent living – difficulty doing errands alone.

  • The population of adults age 65 and older has ballooned in the past decade, driven by aging baby boomers, but all boomers will be 65 or older by 2030.

  • A couple of years after that, the leading edge of Generation X will hit full retirement age.

Experts say, if those retirees plan on living independent lives in their own homes, we need to start planning now.

"The numbers are only going to go up because people are living longer," said Liz Ford, executive director of The ARC of the Mid-Ohio Valley. "There has to be some thought and planning to look to the future for what those numbers would be, and how a community, as a state, as a nation, can financially support people that are living longer with disabilities."

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Taking steps to ensure homes and other spaces are more accessible to accommodate devices like Hoyer lifts, a mobility tool, could be helpful for older adults with disabilities, Ford said.

"If those plans were simply drawn from the beginning, it would make sense for our whole society as we all age and move forward," she said. "I know that's a big ask, but it would make a difference when new apartment buildings and hotels and facilities are being built."

Aging adults living with disabilities are also more likely to have chronic diseases. According to the CDC:

  • About 38% of adults with a disability are obese, compared with 26% of adults without a disability.

  • About 16% of adults have diabetes, compared with 7.2% of adults without a disability.

"The way that we could be helpful is in better screening and better ongoing medical attention being paid to things like obesity, diabetes and heart disease," Ford said.

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The 'disability belt'

For a cluster of states in Appalachia and the South, known as the 'disability belt' because of their high rates, the problem is particularly dire, said Andrew Houtenville, research director at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire.

Southern states have the greatest percentage of disabled adults age 18 or older compared to the rest of the country, according to CDC estimates.

In Arkansas, for instance, 35% of adults have a disability, and the most prevalent functional disability type is mobility – serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs. The state spends about $8.6 billion every year in disability healthcare costs, making up 41% of Arkansas' healthcare spending.

West Virginia, however, is the state with the highest rate of disabled adults. Some 39% of adults live with a disability in the state, according to CDC data, with mobility being the most common type. West Virginia spends about $6.7 billion per year in disability healthcare costs.

Access to affordable housing is one big issue some aging adults face in West Virginia, said Susan Given, executive director at Disability Rights of West Virginia. Some older adults, Given said, are held up from being discharged from healthcare facilities or psychiatric hospitals because they have no place to live.

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Disability Rights of West Virginia, a private nonprofit agency, receives calls from older disabled adults asking for assistance ranging from getting a new or repaired wheelchair to planning their discharge from a nursing home to requesting information on receiving medical care while incarcerated.

Tom Masseau, executive director at Disability Rights of Arkansas, said it's important for the state to redirect existing resources to provide the accommodations and services older disabled individuals need to stay in their homes.

"We have a large number of institutions not only for people with disabilities, but also for the aging community," Masseau said. "We need to redirect those resources and priorities back into making sure that people can stay in their home."

An unexpected lifeline

The Disability Information and Access Line (DIAL) helps people with disabilities get vaccinated against COVID-19 by finding vaccination sites and answering general questions about the vaccine.

But as calls came in, the need for assistance in other areas quickly became clear, said Sandy Markwood, CEO of the national advocacy group USAging, which runs the call center.

"The access to the COVID vaccine was really just the immediate need," Markwood said. "But as you dug deeper, you found out that transportation, for instance, may be a major issue. Even in-home support, especially during the COVID crisis, for people who had more severe personal care needs was a real problem."

What started out as a call center to address specific needs with the vaccine, Markwood said, became an effort that also connects people with disabilities to a broad range of information and services for independent living.

"Older adults and people with disabilities really want to live," Markwood said. "They want to age at home and in the community, and these supportive services that we are connecting them to really make a difference in enabling them to live that independent life safely and securely that they really want."

To contact DIAL, users can call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@usaginganddisability.org Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: As the US ages, changes need to be made to maintain independent living