Stacey Malcolmson is the president and CEO of The Senior Source, which for 60 years has looked after the interests of elderly North Texans. Among other services, the nonprofit runs financial literacy classes and volunteer programs. It offers resources on area nursing homes as well as support for caregivers responsible for aging family members. The Senior Source is also an advocate, lobbying for policies that will better protect a population that is especially vulnerable and, too often, socially isolated.
“We all deserve to age with dignity and respect,” Malcolmson says. “And that’s going to be aging for a lot longer than it used to be. Living until 90 is no longer just a pipe dream. And that is 25 or 30 years after retirement for some people.”
The country’s more than 70 million Baby Boomers are getting old, and demographers have warned of a coming “silver tsunami.” Texas is, on average, younger than most states. But the population of Texas residents aged 65 and older, now numbering about 3.9 million people, is expected to double by 2050. Caring for this aging population—financially, emotionally, medically—will be a challenge.
I talked to Malcolmson on the phone about how Dallas residents can prepare for this demographic change and ensure that all of us can grow old with “dignity and respect.” This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic been especially hard on older people?
COVID really exacerbated some issues that were already concerns for older adults. Increased vulnerability comes from an increase in stress, and the increase in social isolation decreases physical health. While social isolation has always been an issue for older adults, what exacerbated it was the lack of technology, training, and access of seniors. We know that fewer seniors are on the internet vs. the younger population. And, especially for our low-income clients and volunteers, they may have checked their email at the library, which they couldn’t do anymore. And the vast majority of our clients and volunteers had a smartphone, but they were using it to make calls and maybe some texts, and that’s about it. So our goal has been to show how to use video technology, how to use their phones—because we’re not going back to a world where everything is face-to-face.
And then seniors’ financial insecurity was exacerbated by the pandemic. A lot of seniors have part-time jobs, retail jobs, and those were eliminated. Or their job was eliminated, and they’re not quite ready to retire. How do you bridge that gap from a financial perspective? We also saw a ton of scams focusing on older adults. You had [scammers] targeting stimulus checks in June of last year and people saying you had to pay to register to get a vaccine.
What have you learned during COVID about how we can support older people and their caregivers?
While technology was an option 18 months ago, it’s no longer an option to survive in this world. So we are launching technology classes for all older adults. I think that’s been the biggest wakeup call for seniors. The other thing is the toll on mental health, especially for family caregivers. When the pandemic shut everything down, there was nowhere go. The caregiver did not have the breaks they would have had in the past—taking their loved ones to a doctor’s appointment and getting out of the house. I’ve been encouraged by the amount of content that’s online now for caregivers to improve their own mental health, but also that of their loved one. In our seminars, we’re going to have to have that hybrid option and virtual option.
Texas is younger than a lot of states. But like everywhere else in the U.S., we have a growing population of older adults, especially as the Baby Boomer generation ages. Why do we need to prepare for this? What challenges are we going to face in caring for a larger elderly population?
We all deserve to age with dignity and respect. And that’s going to be aging for a lot longer than it used to be. Living until 90 is no longer just a pipe dream. And that is 25 or 30 years after retirement for some people. So people need to think about financially preparing for aging, and also what they’re going to do with their time. We know that social isolation increases dementia. We would love for people to hire older adults more than they do now. I wish employers would give older adults more of a chance when it comes to employment.
And what volunteer opportunities are there? How do we keep seniors active and engaged? The city of Dallas does not have dedicated senior centers. They’ve got rec centers and maybe a room that’s for seniors. But where are seniors going to go for 25 years after retirement? They don’t have the city amenities to help them. Some of the other suburbs in Dallas have much better senior centers. That’s on our minds: How do you be financially secure for 25 or 30 years, and then how do you spend your time?
Stop me if I’m off-base, but it seems like there are two elements here. You need volunteer efforts and this personal touch to directly care for seniors. But you also need changes at a bigger, policy level. You mentioned dedicated senior centers. What are some other things that government could do here?
In the legislative session that just ended, we continued to advocate. Nursing homes continue to be lax on their safety policies for their residents. And so that’s something we’re always trying to strengthen, whether it’s background checks or staffing ratios. There are no staffing ratios in nursing homes—whereas in preschools, it’s one teacher to every however-many children. The nursing home lobby has been incredibly strong. We need to have better safeguards to protect residents in nursing homes. Seventy percent of us will end up in some sort of long-term care facility at some point, whether that’s rehab after knee replacement surgery or long-term care.
One of the downsides of social isolation is that if you’re lonely at home, you may be more willing to answer that phone call and respond to that email that’s fraudulent.
Frauds and scams [targeting seniors] we really have to pay attention to. We’ve been able to get some tougher penalties for perpetrators of frauds and scams, and of abuse and neglect and exploitation of seniors. That’s going to continue to grow. The scammers are so sophisticated. One of the downsides of social isolation is that if you’re lonely at home, you may be more willing to answer that phone call and respond to that email that’s fraudulent. Keeping people active and educating them on financial fraud is really critical. And as we look to Dallas, affordable and reliable transportation and housing continue to be two elements.
Could you expand on that? I know older adults often have physical mobility issues. How does affordable and reliable transportation come into play here?
One thing that DART doesn’t necessarily do is a pickup to your door vs. just waiting in the street. And if someone really needs help getting to that step—you can pre-schedule a ride that will allow you to do that, but it’s so few and far between. It’s really inconvenient. Not just curbside drop-off, but having that front-door escort is something we’ve advocated for in the past.
Everyone either has an aging family member or are themselves getting older. What advice do you have for all of us?
It’s all about being prepared. It is never too early, even for people in their 40s and 50s, to ask their parents: Do you have a will? Do you have power of attorney? Do you have medical directives in case there’s a crisis? We really try to educate people on what documents you need as you’re aging. When you go into retirement, how do you think about Medicare? We have an insurance specialist on staff who can give that direction.
There are a lot of innovations that are coming through for aging in place. Most people want to stay in their homes. But it’s not something you can do lightly. We have people who can come out and make recommendations if you’re going to age in place. Do you need rail bars for small stairs? You need to look out for tripping, which is a major hazard for older adults. And then if you don’t want to age in place, have you thought about what type of facility you want to live in? You can tour those facilities before you need them to know what your wishes are. These are decisions that, if they’re made when people are still healthy, can take so much stress off of not only older adults, but the people caring for them.