The increasingly senior-centric economy: How professionals are navigating the opportunities and challenges caused by the graying of the region


Second in a two-part series

By Don Fenley and Scott Robertson

The only major age category that is seeing notable population growth in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia is the 65+ category. As was pointed out in this space in the April 2018 issue, by 2028, it is projected that one in every four residents of this region will be over the age of 64. Those numbers do not merely reflect the graying of America. They exceed it.

That’s why, at a time when operations revenue is down significantly and layoffs are occurring, Ballad Health is building a transitional care and assisted living facility on the site of the former Northside Hospital in Johnson City. It’s why Holston Medical Group recently hired the region’s first board certified geriatrician. But it’s not just health care providers that are retooling to better serve the growing market of Boomer seniors.

Alicia Tranum is a health insurance broker with Beyond Benefits in Kingsport, Tenn. Her business focuses entirely on health insurance, and while her firm handles everything from group benefits to dental and vision insurance, the demographic balance of her customer base is shifting to the over-65 Medicare market. “We track the over-65 numbers very carefully, and every month has doubled from the previous year,” Tranum said. “So, March this year is double what March was last year. February has doubled vs February last year.”

And while that’s enviable business growth, it comes with a price tag, Tranum said. She and her staff are forced to spend a great deal of time on training. “Some of (our customers) are just turning 65. Others need an evaluation of their current plan vs what’s coming out,” Tranum said. “And it changes at the speed of light. In February, for instance, President Trump changed some of the Medicare laws that pertain to prescription Part D. It is an ever-changing environment.

“CMS guidelines cause us to have a large amount of training per carrier,” she said, and her firm handles several carriers’ products. “So, training’s a constant process. If there’s any down-time, it’s not down-time.

  Two local Realtors note the reaction to the graying demographic on the housing market is an evolving process in an industry that has become more complex due to regulations and one that can be slow to react to the demands elders have and continue to exert.

Diane Hills, co-principal broker at Southern Dwellings and a member of the Tennessee Real Estate Commission, says an aging demographic and older population lends itself to longer housing tenure.  For example, the most current Census housing data show occupants of about 72,000 Tri-Cities households moved into their homes 20 years ago or more. Of those 23,000 had a move-in date of 40 years ago or more. Those homeowners have and will continue to have special housing needs.

Hills and Marsha Stowell, principal broker at A Team Real Estate Professionals, say a big local challenge is those folks who have been in their homes for 20 years or more and who are now empty nesters or are preparing for retirement can’t find enough of the product they’re looking for on the local market. Twenty years ago, people were looking for larger homes, so they liked split foyers. That’s one way to get more room for the money. But that’s out of favor now. People want smaller houses that require less upkeep, according to the two Realtors. “We don’t have a housing inventory that matches our demographic,” Stowell said.

Financial planners are having to break some bad news to the Boomers, said Tommy Greer, managing partner at Blackburn Childers & Steagall. “As retirement becomes a priority we are having more people than ever turn to us for retirement/financial planning. Many are having to face the reality that they will not be able to retire at 65 as many saw their parents do.”  In many cases, that’s because everything from children’s college to vacations have taken precedent over saving for retirement. “Most all of our parents have pensions that have provided for them greatly in their retirement years. Our generation is the first where we were mainly responsible for saving for our own retirement and needless to say we did not do very well.”

In the short-term, Greer says, that just means more business for firms like BCS. “It’s been said more money will change hands from one generation to another over the next 20 years than ever before in our history. That has led for a much bigger tax and financial planning need within families than ever before.” 

One advantage for employers because of this is a surfeit of talent and experience available in people between 65 and 80 who are still healthy and willing to work. “They usually don’t need to work fulltime, typically have great work ethic and maturity and can be great mentors/models to a younger workforce,” Greer said. “I have found them to be very affordable and while needing the money often are driven just by the enjoyment of working.”

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