Buncombe’s Silver Tsunami: As Growth in Residents Over 65 Soars, Funding for Services Doesn’t Keep Pace

Three people wearing silver suits dancing on a wood floor.
Starr Sariego, Asheville Watchdog

Written by Barbara Durr, Asheville Watchdog.

A silver tsunami has washed over Buncombe County for nearly 25 years and shows no signs of receding.

During the pandemic years of 2020-2022, adults over 65 accounted for an astonishing 96.1 percent of the increase in Buncombe’s population, according to the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management. And by 2036, thanks to the area’s renown as a retirement mecca and the surge in Baby Boomers hitting age 65, one in four residents will belong to that cohort, the agency projects.

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The influx is the reason the area’s pickleball courts are full, and why there are long waits at doctors’ offices, retirement housing complexes, and adult day care facilities. The need for aging services – housing, health and nutrition, transportation, protection from abuse, and caregiving – has skyrocketed, according to local service organizations for older adults, and will only increase in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, Buncombe’s funding for aging services has not kept pace with the increase in older adults. Annual funding has stagnated at about $2 million for the last seven years, and per capita funding is less today than it was in 2017.

“The need for aging services is growing exponentially,” said Elizabeth Williams, the executive director at MountainCare, which operates adult day care facilities that provide socializing, nursing support, activities, food, and personal care for aging adults, and an opportunity for primary caregivers to get a break. Calls for service to her organization doubled between 2019 and 2023.

Since the turn of the century, Buncombe has experienced dramatic growth in residents over 65. In 2000, the cohort made up 15.3 percent of the population and by 2020, 21 percent. Today, 22.6 percent of residents are older than 65, according to the Office of State Budget and Management.

The big surge came between 2010 and 2024, when Buncombe’s year-to-year growth of over-65s rose by an eyebrow-raising average of 58 percent, according to research economist Tom Tveidt at SYNEVA Economics.

Buncombe’s over-65 population will grow by 40 percent by 2042, faster than nearby counties with less population, according to data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Funding for aging services simply hasn’t kept up with the growth, advocates say.

“We have had basically flat funding for years and years and years. Yet the demographics are going up,” said LeeAnne Tucker, the director of Land of Sky Regional Council’s Area Agency on Aging. Her agency allocates federal funding in the form of community block grants to counties under the Older Americans Act of 1965.

Buncombe’s growth in its older population mirrors what’s occurring statewide and nationally.

Greater longevity is a key contributing factor to the aging bulge of the Baby Boomer generation, born 1946 to 1964. The spike in older adults began in 2011 when the first Boomers turned 65, but by 2040, that cohort will be 26 percent of the U.S. population, according to figures from the Census Bureau. 

They are riding an increase in life expectancy, which is 77.5 years, according to latest estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2022. (Life expectancy dipped between 2019 and 2021 due to the pandemic as well as drug overdoses, suicides, and accidents but has rebounded.) In 1946, the first year of the Boomer generation, the CDC calculated life expectancy at just 66.7 years.

The upshot nationally is that about 10,000 Baby Boomers retire daily, said Nathan Ramsey, director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board at the Land of Sky Regional Council.

While over 65s accounted for just 18 percent of North Carolina’s population in 2022, that portion will rise by 48 percent in 2040 to 21 percent. During the same period, the number of residents over 85 will grow 114 percent, according to the North Carolina Coalition on Aging, an advocacy group pressing for greater support for aging services.

“This changing demographic has been known for decades but the state is ill equipped to handle the growing needs for long-term services and support,” according to the coalition.

A top destination for retirees 

For years, the Asheville area has shown up on the top places in the country to retire in publications such as Forbes.com, TopRetirements.com, and Money.com. Real estate companies, upscale retirement communities, and specialist publications promote the area as a retirement haven.

“Nestled between the Blue Ridge and the Great Smoky Mountains, Asheville offers breathtaking vistas and acres of state and national parks,” according to luxury-communities.com. “The city, renowned for its vibrant arts scene, boutique downtown, and stellar dining, is a haven for retirees seeking both outdoor activities and urban delights.”

Asheville tourism has exploded into a $3 billion-a-year industry, thanks to the marketing power of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority, whose public relations staff works to generate publicity for the area and has landed the city on many “Best of” lists, including “Best Places to Retire.” As Asheville Watchdog reported in its four-part Selling Asheville series last fall, the TDA has noted a “halo effect:” Consumers with awareness of its advertising are more positive about Asheville “as a place to live, work or retire.”

While the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce doesn’t actively promote the area with outreach to publications, said Erin Leonard, the Chamber’s vice president for communications, it keeps track of the rankings, and offers encouragement for retiring here.

“Asheville beckons” starts the text on the Chamber’s webpage on retirement, which says a retiree here “has the opportunity for endless engagement, education and inspiration.” The Chamber touts the award-winning Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of North Carolina Asheville as an attraction for older adults, “particularly transplants.”

“Fifty percent of the people I work with are retirees,” said Reed Fendler, an agent with Nest Realty in Asheville. “They’re coming for quality of life,” he said. Most tell him they’ve heard of Asheville through word of mouth, but then do research and visit to validate what they’ve heard.

Needs for aging services skyrocket

Buncombe ranks among the top five North Carolina counties with the fastest growing rate of over 65s, but it’s not the oldest county in North Carolina in terms of percentage of that cohort. That’s our neighbor to the south, Transylvania County, where over 65s comprised 39.3 percent of the population in 2022, according to the latest annual figures available from NCDHHS. Henderson and Madison counties also had higher percentages, at 32.6 percent and 27.5 percent respectively.

Yet Buncombe is in many ways emblematic of the state-wide and national silver tsunami and its implications.

Rachel Miller, the director of the Council on Aging of Buncombe County, told The Watchdog that the needs of over 65s “far outweigh the funding.”

In 2017, as concerns rose about the increase in Buncombe’s older population, the County Commission applied for and won the World Health Organization and American Association of Retired People (AARP) designation of “Age Friendly.” This required an “age friendly” plan centered on WHO’s eight focus areas for older adults’ health and quality of life: housing, health and community services, social participation, civic engagement, transportation, respect and inclusion, outdoor spaces and buildings, and information and communication. Buncombe is currently updating its Age Friendly Action Plan of 2021-2024, led by Billie Breeden, who was hired in 2022 as the full-time Age Friendly Coordinator.

The county’s plan includes such actions as promoting safe, affordable, and accessible housing options for aging in place; ensuring safe and accessible public buildings, outdoor spaces and businesses; supporting older adults’ health and well-being; supporting caregiver well-being; promoting older adults engagement, including volunteerism and civic engagement; and ensuring older adults have access to services and supports.

While the majority of the county’s funding for aging services comes through the federal government’s community block grants, Buncombe adds in its own funds of $500,000 a year.

Funding is a challenge, according to Breeden, who hopes that the federal government will increase its block grant program this year. “It’s a challenge everywhere because our whole population is aging,” she said.

Susan Schiemer, who has spent her career in long-term care, chairs the county’s advisory committee that reviews local proposals for funding and makes recommendations on allocations. She told The Watchdog that the committee focuses on food, shelter, direct care, housing, legal assistance, and transportation, but does not support capital improvements or start-up funding.

The County Commission is currently updating its strategic plan for 2025-2030. “Aging in place is one of the pieces” in the plan, Commissioner Terri Wells said. While commissioners discussed amending other parts of the plan, she said, “Every commissioner is, like, that needs to stay in the plan. There’s awareness that this is an important issue.”

Wells noted that other services from the county, including its efforts on affordable housing, its mobile health team that services rural areas, and the upkeep and improvements of parks and greenways, do not specifically target over 65s but also benefit them. She included a recently approved program that will help with home repairs using a $400,000 block grant that came through the state Department of Commerce. She acknowledged that awareness of county services is low.

“We’ve got to do a better job of connecting people and making them aware of the resources,” Wells said.

More funding for those services may be constrained by the county’s projected $28.5 million budget shortfall for the coming year if it doesn’t raise taxes.

State-wide ambitions

Funds that trickle down to the state from the federal government have stayed relatively stagnant, said Mary Bethel, chair of the board of the North Carolina Coalition on Aging. And, she said, “The state has not been real generous in the General Assembly for appropriating new dollars.”

Bethel is on the steering committee that helped draft a multi-sector plan called “All Ages, All Stages NC: A Roadmap to Aging and Living Well,” which was delivered to Gov. Roy Cooper this month. Cooper called for such a plan in an executive order on May 2, 2023, launching an effort to have the state be designated “Age Friendly” by the WHO and AARP.

“We aren’t quite at a crisis situation if you look at it as a total, but we’re heading in that direction,” Bethel told The Watchdog. “We’ve got to plan or we’re going to find that it’s going to be too little too late.”

Yet, Williams, who in addition to being MountainCare’s executive director also serves as executive director of the Henderson County Council on Aging, said there is broad reluctance to come to grips with the silver tsunami, what its needs are, and its implications for funding services.

“We are not ready as a community. We’re not ready as a state. We’re not ready as a country,” she said.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. Barbara Durr is a former correspondent for The Financial Times of London. Contact her at [email protected]. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.