In Murray, Route 94 morphs into Main Street right around the university. Because it is a straight stretch of road, drivers can easily see what is heading their way. Even from a distance, it seems impossible not to recognize an impending emergency when lights flash and sirens blare.
Since 1987, when Murray and the Kentucky Lake Region was designated the #1 Retirement Community in America, the community has taken pride in welcoming relocating retirees, attracted by the quality of life. In presenting the award, Rand McNally cited Murray’s appeal, as evidenced in the low cost of living, personal safety, attractive climate, access to health care and essential services, and ample recreation and leisure opportunities.
In an interview on the thirtieth anniversary of the retirement designation, Harold Doran Jr., then-president of the local Chamber of Commerce board, reflected on the past. “It was hard to assess what would happen after that,” he remarked, “but we knew it would have an impact.”
Of course, Murray was not alone in experiencing what demographers have called a “silver tsunami,” a transformative demographic shift. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2030 older people will outnumber children in this country. By then, 1 in 5 Americans will be retirement age.
Fast forward to 2035, and 78 million Americans will be 65-plus, while 76.7 million will be 18 or less.
For years, Ron Crouch, a well-respected demographer who served in Kentucky’s Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, spread the word that Kentucky would be challenged by the growing number of older people, accompanied by little-to-no-growth in the younger, workforce-age population.
“We, and the rest of the world, are going to go into population decline in a very short period, in the next 10, 20, 30 years,” Crouch projected.
The handwriting on the wall ended up in the headlines on Oct. 15, when WKMS-FM reported that Fern Terrace, a personal care home for the elderly in Murray, was set to close on Nov. 19.
After 49 years in operation, staffing issues have made it impossible to keep the doors open.
A national labor shortage has stretched resources to the limit. In a setting where essential support is required 24 hours a day, it is impossible to maintain quality of care when presented with difficulties associated with hiring and retaining qualified workers.
Nationwide, the shortages have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the problems are not new. According to ABC News, with U.S. job openings hitting a record high of 9.2 million, nursing homes and long-term care facilities are losing staff to other industries or to similar jobs with better pay and benefits.
Rob Simpson, the owner of Davco Homes, which manages six personal care homes in west Kentucky, including Fern Terrace, said, “I think COVID has changed the world in almost every scenario, and unfortunately, our business model is older.”
“If you look around the rest of the country,” he went on, “they’re going into smaller units and more specialized care. The traditional personal care model with hundred-bed facilities is kind of a dying breed.”
Current residents of Fern Terrace, many without retirement plans or pensions, may be relocated to other Davco facilities in Mayfield and Owensboro, but there are not enough available rooms within the Davco network for all the displaced residents.
Simpson described the aftermath of the announcement about Fern Terrace’s closing. Staff members were crying and distraught. “They were like, ‘There is no other place that takes care of these people.’”
“We take care of the blue-collar elderly here,” he explained.
Fern Terrace is not the only local facility affected by marketplace demands. In May, Murray-Calloway County Hospital announced the sale of Spring Creek, another residence for long-term care. Plainview Healthcare Partners, based in New York City, assumed ownership of Spring Creek on June 1.
Those who tend to the elderly, including health care professionals and at-home caregivers, saw the problems coming, but were powerless to leverage positive change and get ahead of the wave.
Mark McLemore, executive director of the Murray-Calloway County Senior Citizen Center, recognizes that Murray is not alone in facing these challenges, but he pointed out that Fern Creek played a unique role in senior caregiving.
“Those folks don’t have the financial resources,” he said. “Individuals of modest means try to avoid institutionalized settings. They don’t want to be a burden on society.”
Prior to heading up the Senior Citizens Center, McLemore ran Wesley at Murray, a two-story retirement community owned by the Wesley Foundation and open to qualified applicants age 62 and older. McLemore understands the challenges Fern Terrace residents will experience in being moved. “It’s hard to transition and accept a new location,” he said. “Tragically, there is a shortage of affordable senior housing units.”
The dearth of beds and lack of resources to support the elderly in need of caregiving are an emergency that has been steadily approaching for the past 30 years, yet communities all over the country, including ours, are not rising to the challenge.
Kate Hoffman, a former resident of Murray, summed up the situation succinctly: “Very sad news, especially for a community that was once touted as a great place to retire.”