Northwest Michigan is growing older | News – Traverse City Record Eagle

TRAVERSE CITY — Northern Michigan is getting older.

Every county north of Grand Rapids added years to its median age — a metric that offers statisticians a clear sense of a region’s age.

The state’s aging tracks with changes nationwide, as Americans are living longer and having fewer children.

But in Michigan, that transformation has been occurring more rapidly for years. Seniors make up an increasing portion of the population statewide, with the most significant shifts happening in the state’s northern counties. An older region presents challenges, as well as benefits, that may require big adjustments in the years to come.

In 2010, the median age in Leelanau County was 49 years old. In 2019, the most recent year for which census data is available, that number has risen to 54 years — 15 years older than the nationwide average.

Other northwest Michigan counties aged similarly. In Antrim County the median age rose to 51, up from 46 years old, 10 years ago. In Benzie County, the median age of residents is now 50, up from 44 in 2010.

Grand Traverse County, which has the largest population in the region, aged by two years in the past decade.

What makes the region unique is that, despite getting older, the population here is growing.

Rural and urban counties downstate have been aging and losing population. But this year, Grand Traverse County added more than 5,000 residents, according to Census data released earlier this year. Only Antrim County lost residents, shrinking by a small margin.

Growing, but growing older, makes the region a bit of an anomaly, said Matt McCauley, CEO of Networks Northwest.

“Generally speaking, older communities aren’t growing communities,” McCauley said.

Proof of that exists in the current labor shortage. Population growth in the retiree community increased demands for housing and services, but the labor force hasn’t grown in kind.

“Right now we’re seeing population growth but there’s help-wanted signs everywhere,” McCauley said. “There’s a structural component to that growth that makes northwest Michigan communities a bit of an oddball.”

A growing, aging community also puts big demands on the local networks that support retirees and seniors. Heidi Gustine, executive director of the Area Agency on Aging, said pandemic-induced labor shortages pushed these support systems to the brink.

“We can’t staff cases because the same population that isn’t there to work in the restaurants isn’t there to work in the homes to provide care,” said Gustine.

AAA is one of several groups available to seniors who need help with in-home care, alongside the Commission on Aging. Both groups work to deliver care to seniors’ homes, often by contracting private care agencies.

Gustine said that AAA has seen a tripling of work requests since the pandemic began. In an effort to work down the backlog, AAA has raised the rates it pays agencies. Even with higher wages, however, there still are thousands of unstaffed healthcare jobs in northwest Michigan, Gustine estimated. For the elderly who need help bathing, getting dressed and moving about, these labor shortages translate directly into an absence of care.

“If you are 75, 80, 85 and needing someone to get dressed, there’s no-one to do that,” Gustine said. “We’ve got an industry that’s starting to feel on the verge of collapsing.”

The flipside is that counties like Leelanau and Grand Traverse attract wealthier retirees who tend to be outdoorsy, healthy and active, Gustine said. That demographic leans less on support networks and is often extremely civically engaged, spearheading community groups and volunteer efforts around a range of social issues.

Some wind up coming back to work in order to stave off boredom. Bob Sutherland, owner of Cherry Republic, said retirees make up a big portion of his winter seasonal hires. Cherry Republic’s workforce swells to around 350 employees in the run-up to Christmas.

Sutherland thinks a third of those hires come from the senior demographic.

“It’s a great opportunity to make some friends, and a lot of these are community members who want to be a part of the Christmas spirit,” said Sutherland.

There are more than a few who led tremendously active lives in their retirement. One of them is Bob Steadman, a 93-year old former trial lawyer who lives with his brother in Garfield Township. Steadman recently finished a draft of his debut novel, a courtroom thriller entitled “I Killed Sam.”

“I have yet to feel retired,” said Steadman.

On Fridays, Steadman plays bridge with his brother, Richard, a former school principal, as well as Ron Bohn, a former basketball coach and area native, and Randall Potager. They all love northwest Michigan — Bohn calls it “God’s Country.” But they also lament how some of the small-town charm they treasure has vanished.

Downtown has become increasingly less accessible, they said, partially because of congestion and partially because of inflation, which has left some retirees to do more with less.

Steadman’s organization, Senior Center Friends, has recently been pushing for action on construction of a new senior center in Grand Traverse County.

They feel that the project has stalled, despite money and agreements being made for the new center’s construction.

They all feel as if housing prices in the region have spun off the rails, even if wealthy retirees played some part in driving up prices.

“We’ve priced ourselves out of the market,” said Bob Steadman. “And the people who come here to serve the retirement community can’t find a place to live.”