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Oklahoma Faces "Silver Tsunami" of Poor, Disabled Seniors


Oklahoma ranks sixth in the nation in the proportion of its population age 50 or older with a disability, and the state's disabled older citizens are more likely to rent than to own a home.

Gather 100 Oklahomans age 50 or older in a single room, and statistics say 42 of them will be disabled. Do that in the worst state, Arkansas, and 45 will be disabled. 

In the best state, Minnesota, just 28 will be. That's according to the most recent edition of AARP's state housing profiles.

Oklahoma's health indicators have improved in recent years.

"We were ranked 49th. Now we've moved to 43rd," Gov. Mary Fallin said at a Sapulpa civic event earlier this month.

But those improvements haven't significantly reduced the state's proportion of disabled elderly. It dropped less than half of a percent over 10 years. James Crowder of the Oklahoma Alliance on Aging is among those who see disability as an unfortunate but normal part of getting older.

"People get real old, they just get a lot of things the matter with them" he said. "For instance, I'm 85, and I'm fortunate so far."

There's more to it than that, and that's why Oklahoma ranks where it does. Poverty has a huge impact on health.

"We're 46th-worse in the United States in the amount of poverty," said Jan Figart, associate director of the Community Service Council of Greater Tulsa. "People's access to nutritious foods, people's access to positive lifestyles is very low."

Figart also points to the number of uninsured as a reason behind the high proportion of disabled elderly. Not those who currently don't have health insurance, but the people who have never had it.

"They've let many conditions go that could have been prevented, now to become chronic problems," Figart said.

The Indian Nations Council of Governments Area Agency on Aging sees that firsthand. It provides free services to needy seniors in Tulsa, Creek and Osage counties. Regan McManus is a planner with the agency.

"There are a lot of people out there for a lot of different reasons that, if they would've, I guess, nipped it in the bud in the beginning, could have at least slowed down the progression of their conditions," McManus said.

The proportion of disabled elderly renters has crept up in the last decade, too. Of those hypothetical 42 disabled Oklahomans, 22 are renters. It's the fourth-highest proportion in the U.S., and not by much.

Of course, some of these 60,000 Oklahomans have never owned a home, but others have.

"Many people's only asset is their home," Figart said.

That sets up situations where it's easy to lose a home. Many older people, disabled or not, eventually fall behind in maintenance, can't pay property taxes — or worse.

"A lot of them can't even afford homeowner's insurance," McManus said.

The disabled elderly and their families often have extra motivation to sell a home. 

"They turn around and use that money to then help them survive during their aging years or help someone who they're giving care to, such as their aging spouse," Figart said.

These problems are expected to get worse. Projections show the fastest-growing segments of Oklahoma's population in the next 22 years will be ages 65 to 79 and ages 80-plus.

"The 'Silver Tsunami,'" Figart said. "We are having to accommodate at a far more rapid speed than what our resources are available to us."

That will put Oklahoma's 11 area agencies on aging in a tough spot. INCOG, the local agency McManus works for, receives federal funds and a state match.

It's been a few years since she last saw a funding boost.

"When you have stagnant funding but you have a growing need, that's when, like, people don't get services or they're on waiting lists," McManus said.

The elderly who need the most help also cost the most to help, limiting what area agencies can do for other seniors.

With a growing population of seniors, a large proportion of them disabled and poor, the agencies will face tough choices absent increased funding unless the health and wealth of Oklahoma's over-50 population drastically improve.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.