A graying population poses challenges for Up North counties




When Ted Fines and his wife, Chris, retired in 2013 and moved from Grosse Pointe to Alcona County, they knew they were moving to a different world – rural rather than suburban, with low taxes rather than high.

The pace is slower, too. But that might be because of all the people who need help getting around.

“You see it all the time,” said Ted, 65 and still vigorous, an enthusiastic community volunteer and sometime photography teacher. “People with canes and walkers everywhere.”

The Fines were moving to the vacation home they bought in 2000 in Lost Lake Woods, a gated community dotted with lakes and advertised as a family getaway nestled in the gorgeous landscape of the northeast lower peninsula. It’s not officially a retirement community, but in some ways, the larger region already is.

Alcona County has the highest median age – 55.8 – in Michigan, which in turn has one of the oldest populations in the nation. And no region has aged more than Up North. Michigan is tied with Montana for having the most counties with a median age over 50; there are 11. All are in northern Michigan. It makes for a graying, dwindling population and a particular set of policy questions for the region.

As the rest of the state, and the country, and Europe, and other developed nations follow the same pattern, questions about how to accommodate this aging population will occupy policymakers for years.

“We’re very aware of it,” said Rep. Peter Pettalia, a Republican who believes his district, the 106th, encompassing five counties along the Lake Huron shoreline, is the oldest district in the state, “and if not, certainly No. 2.”

Pettalia describes his elderly constituents as one would expect from a recently re-elected politician – “a great group, solid community members.” But he acknowledged they pose unique challenges for the rural district. Transportation, healthcare, education, economic development – all are concerns when so many are past their prime wage-earning years.

Pettalia said the graying nature of northern Michigan can be explained by the shrinking of industry in the area, which leads to job and population loss, combined with the influx of retirees relocating for their golden years, like the Fines. They might be very active, and many are, but they’re not building wealth anymore, he said. They’re spending what they’ve accumulated through their lifetimes.

“I have sat on my share of economic development commissions,” Pettalia said. “What I see is that there are people here who have money, and we’re happy that they’re here, but they’re not entrepreneurs. They won’t buy a niche store and make a go of it, or buy a restaurant.”

Pettalia says the region can be a draw for workers who don’t want to live in a large city, but can work via internet connections and access to a regional airport -- like his daughter, who moved from downstate, and “is making Ann Arbor wages in Alpena.”

He also said “young retirees,” with money and energy, might be willing to take a flyer on some of those aforementioned niche stores or restaurants -- a coffee shop, maybe, or a chocolatier.

“They aren’t family-supporting businesses, but more of a hobby. We’re seeing a little bit of that now.”

Still, the “lost decade” of the 2000s hit northern Michigan hard, although it’s crawling back, he said.

“I’m optimistic, but I’m a realist,” he said.

Caring for a scattered population in need

Many of the elderly in northeast Michigan don’t have much money at all. Laurie Sauer, director of the local Area Agency on Aging, said 20 percent of the older population live below the poverty line, as opposed to 17 percent statewide. While there are pockets of wealthier retirees, issues such as transportation in particular complicate seniors’ lives.

“It’s not like in Detroit, where you can take a bus from point A to point B,” Sauer said. While communities like Alpena and Gaylord have rudimentary county bus systems, residents of smaller communities must rely on dial-a-ride services or family members to get to doctor appointments and shopping trips.

And because many of the elderly are poor, they’re more likely to suffer from health problems associated with both, including diabetes, heart disease and obesity, Sauer said.

To that end, the agency provides workshops like PATH, or Personal Action Toward Health, a chronic-disease self-management program developed at Stanford University. The program is offered statewide, free or at low cost, and is aimed at getting those with conditions like diabetes, chronic pain and even cancer to take a more active role in keeping themselves in better health, Sauer said.

“In 12 counties, we have six hospitals. Several pockets of our region are designated medically underserved,” she said. “This is important.”

According to the Rural Assistance Center, a health and human services information source for the rural U.S., the northeast Michigan region is served mainly by health centers, with some “critical access hospitals” for shorter stays and emergency care. Critical-care cases are likely to be sent to Saginaw, Traverse City or even metro Detroit.

Reading, writing and elder exercise

The story of the region is reflected in the dolorous enrollment numbers Shawn Thornton, superintendent of Alcona Community Schools, reels off: In 2005, enrollment in the district stood at 1,065 students. A decade later, it has dropped to 751.

With state aid tied to enrollment, that has meant sharp budget cuts in a school district that covers 400 square miles, Thornton said.

“Everybody is very aware of it,” she said. “We have a very senior population in our community, and that has a lot of benefits, but it also has things that occur as a result that affect our district.”

In addition to serving as education facilities, Alcona Schools also host community events. While it provides a rich illustration of the region’s demographics to see the elderly exercising in school gyms, Thornton said the community is still supportive of its schools, the way small towns traditionally are.

However, economic development needs to concentrate on bringing people more likely to have school-age children into the region, she said. It’s great to be welcome to all, but “diversity in your population adds value,” and Alcona needs an infusion of younger people.

Michigan’s canary in the nation’s coal mine

Experts who study aging populations caution that the challenges in rural northern Michigan are not unique; the entire country is aging, and the United States is “just barely” replacing its population, said Robert McNulty, president of Partners for Livable Communities, a Washington D.C.-based group that seeks to make cities and towns more welcoming to diverse groups of people, particularly the elderly.

“Aging in place,” or keeping older people in homes of their own choosing -- either a family home or a community of like-minded elders -- is a particular priority for both government and other agencies that serve them, McNulty said. Everyone is happier living where they want rather than a nursing home, and it’s cheaper all around.

“‘Livable’ for the wealthy is hardly ever a challenge,” McNulty said. “Livable for the less well-off takes a whole community.”

The wave of aging baby boomers is exposing rifts in the housing infrastructure, and may lead to a new understanding of how they should be supported, he said, citing suburban subdivisions as a prime example. While boomers flocked to them when they were raising families, they pose considerable obstacles for the elderly, with their distance from city centers and particularly public transportation. The rural elderly of Michigan are faced with the same problems.

In Arizona, even more of a retirement mecca than northern Michigan, aging in place is a prime goal of the state’s planning process, said Cindy Savarino, a program administrator in the state’s Division of Aging and Adult Services. In Arizona, the future is rapidly arriving: In 2012, 19 percent of the state’s population was over 60. By 2020, that figure will rise to 23.4 percent. Arizona’s long-range goals are to support their seniors in home- and community-based services for as long as possible.

“A nursing home here costs $60,000 a year,” Savarino said, while home care is $2,200.

While Arizona does have elderly populations in its rural regions, the vast majority, 87 percent, are in the Phoenix or Tucson metropolitan areas. As the baby boom takes its place in the retirement sunshine, the state expects it to redefine what it means to grow old.

“Boomers are more active, more technologically savvy, and wanting a different way to retire,” said Savarino. “Some are still working, finding new careers, volunteering. The (senior) centers are in the process of adapting to those boomers. It will be a more person-centered model.”

Gray hair as an asset

The key to making a disproportionately elder population work, people like McNulty say, will lie in how well society can fold them into the entire community, while they’re still able and willing to contribute.

“Everything changes,” McNulty said. It takes creative thinking to treat today’s elders differently – and better – than yesterday’s.

What that means, he said, is enlisting older retired business owners as mentors for young people wanting to start one, or asking them to help care for young children, or work as teachers’ aides, or do any number of tasks that fill a need and make all involved parties happy.

“It’s a longevity bonus, not a liability,” he said. “How do we spend it for the benefit of the community?”

It’s an approach that could work in rural Michigan, if communities take advantage of the characteristics that drew people there in the first place.

“Small communities are pretty similar – you know everybody, which is very nice,” said Ron Leslie, city manager of East Tawas in Iosco County, along Lake Huron south of Alpena. “It’s just a nice, laid-back community.”

Leslie said population estimates are projected to decline slowly for as long as 20 years. Deaths outpaced births in the county by 126 in 2013, in a population of 25,429.

Leslie himself is ready for a job change, and he’s planning it for later this year.

“I’m retiring,” he said. “I’ll be 66.”


Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Thu, 03/12/2015 - 8:06am
I have an uncle who retired in the Rogers City area a long time ago, he says Rogers City is basically a retirement community now with fewer young people around who mostly leave the area after high school and don't come back.
Thu, 03/12/2015 - 1:01pm
Many of the young can't wait to get out of northern Michigan and many of the old can't wait to get here. Makes for a low crime rate. I would never encourage a young go-getter to attempt to make their fortunes in northern Michigan. Go to Ann Arbor, East Lansing, Portland, NYC, Chicago, get educated and get rich. Then, buy the cottage up north, visit often and eventually retire here.
Thu, 04/02/2015 - 1:00pm
Go to Detroit!! Portland, Chicago, etc... they are so 2000!! nYc, Boston, SF, DC - way too expensive! The south, is just lame. No cool cities there. Detroit is the new hot bed of the young and entrepreneurial ! Thousands of young people are moving in from all over Michigan and far beyond - east coast, south, Midwest and Europe. Detroit is cool, unique, funky, affordable and there are lots of opportunities. Thousands of jobs are coming into the center city, thousands of new residents coming in, new cafes, apartments are opening weekly. great architecture, unmatch cultural assets, sports, concerts, etc... The young want urban, pedestrian environments to live and work in - Detroit is positively transforming by the day.
brenda Redding
Fri, 03/13/2015 - 6:13pm
The youth leave after graduation because there are few opportunities, very few community colleges, and how can you live like that? Why not educate the youth at least in the jobs the counties need, such as education aides, hospital technicians, other jobs that the counties do have, at the local level in a community college? At least the expenses for those jobs could be spent at the local level in stead of forcing the youth to move the south of Michigan.
Joseph E Sucher
Thu, 03/12/2015 - 10:12am
This is the first article(s) I have read on the subject. So I need some time to digest the issues which actually should have been obvious to me for awhile. While I can't think of any silver bullets to solve the problems, some proactive planning is needed by land use, municipal planners. Economic develop folks also need to be at the table. I hope local elected officials and volunteer community folks continue the conversations needed to plan for a successful future.
Thu, 03/12/2015 - 12:30pm
Actually, I think us old baby-boomers will be the salvation of northern Michigan. Many of us have moved north along with our incomes and savings. We buy property, sometimes build, more often improve, support the arts, support athletic facilities that cater to us, particularly golf courses and swimming pools. We spend, and why not, can't take it with us. Many of us have moved here from horrible places where we worked much of our lives, like Houston, Atlanta, and Miami. We may spend a month or two south, but our homes are in Michigan. Industry is all but gone in northern Michigan. The natural resources, particularly minerals, gas and oil, are quickly being depleted and whatever jobs remain related to these industries will be short lived. What's left is us. Make the best of it!
Thu, 03/12/2015 - 12:30pm
This is an interesting and important essay. Population growth is, ordinarily, a stimulus for economic growth. Population decline ordinarily hastens economic decline. It would be useful to encourage a statewide discussion of the slow growth or decline in the state's population. The UP, I think, had a larger population in 1910 than at present. What can be done to encourage population growth here?
Thu, 03/12/2015 - 1:32pm
Most of the U.P. ore has been mined and most of the valuable trees have been cut. It makes little sense for manufacturing to move here since energy costs are high and industrial buildings require a lot of heat and electricity. The U.P. does have some great educational facilities with Michigan Tech being a world renowned engineering school. The internet co-op, Merit Corporation, has done a good job bringing fiber backbone infrastructure to the U.P., so internet centered companies might make sense here. As towns go, Marquette is actually pretty hip and attracts young people. The growing natural resource in the U.P. is me and my mates, retiring baby-boomers.
Fri, 03/13/2015 - 6:51am
Having been educated in the UP (MTU) and having worked there, I don't believe most of the ore is anywhere near being gone. In fact, there are new mines in the process of being opened. Having worked in timber management for 40 years, I can tell you the UP's forest and forest industry is very healthy and productive.
Thu, 03/12/2015 - 5:18pm
The reality is is that if you don't own a golf course or a restaurant the elderly take way more than they will ever give back in N MI. Most don't even have the power of a vote here since they moved their primary residence to Florida to avoid Snyder's pension tax. The locals have and always will have the upper hand when it comes to planning for the future in N MI.
Thu, 03/12/2015 - 8:15pm
The Traverse City area has attracted a lot of retirees. Having retired here from Washington, DC, I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of young families with small children. The largest employer in town is Munson Hospital which provides a good source of employment for the younger set. The development boom here seems to be focused on building condominiums in the downtown area. It's great for seniors to be able to walk to restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores, movie theaters, the beach, the City Opera House, etc. Maybe some of the small towns up North should consider trying to increase density in whatever downtown area they have.
Rick B
Thu, 03/12/2015 - 9:06pm
Here's a little secret for the readers of this thread. The entire world vacations here. You vacation where I live.
Fri, 03/13/2015 - 11:11am
I like northern Michigan but I think it is overhyped as a vacation destination, have been to other areas of the US that is just as nice if not better.
Fri, 03/13/2015 - 4:59pm
I did an extensive follow up of 700 graduates from the class of 1995. It was conducted in 2001. It included those from Alpena, Hillman, Posen Atlanta,Alcona, and Rogers City. %0 percent where no longer living in Northeast Mi. 20 % were not living in MI. Many reasons why. Not all because of jobs. R.L.
Sat, 03/14/2015 - 10:44am
Sorry about the TYPO on the follow up survey. It is supposed to be 50 % are no longer living in N.E. MI. at age 24 from the class of 1995. R.L.
Sun, 03/15/2015 - 2:43pm
NetworksNorthwest.org has done a great job of studying regional economies, population, housing and other issues of community concern. We baby boomers love living up north, but who will take care of us when we are really elderly? We need a youthful and middle age workforce to keep our economy and our communities fresh and current.
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 12:00pm
The U.P. and northern lower Michigan areas are isolated geographically. The U.P., especially is very isolated and has a natural border with Wisconsin. In order to spur a cronic anemic economy, a plan needs to include permanent economic incentives, a renewed effort to improve the road system, and a change in regulations among other things. It is very difficult to attract and hold industry in an isolated geographic area such as the U.P. Permanent tax incentives (a special economic zone) for the entire U.P., reduce the crushing regulations that force industry away, and 4 lane roads connecting the U.P with downstate Michigan as well as Wisconsin should be looked at. When trucks hauling goods and services across the U.P. are forced to travel on two lane roads at 55 mph, it is expensive for the business in relation to downstate 4 lane roads where they are able to travel at 75 mph. Regulations crush small business and industry. They favor chain stores and industry that can afford them. A small store opened in a small city in the U.P. They did well until the inspector came in and ordered them to put in a new boiler-$20,000. After being in business for a year, they closed their doors-and paying no more taxes to the local, state and federal governments. This is repeated many times over. Our down-towns have been devastated-and not by chain stores-chain stores only took advantage of state and federal policies that favor large, chain operators and large corporations. And lastly, as one resident said, I quit taking vacations downstate-I'm sick and tired of paying a bridge fee for the privilege of being a part of the State of Michigan. If the state government is interested in doing something positive for the U.P., it first needs to acknowledge its special circumstances. Secondly, it needs to take extra-ordinary steps to address the special circumstances. And lastly, as we all know, there is not the will, desire, or votes to do any of this.
Roger Royer
Thu, 04/02/2015 - 12:52pm
I was transferred to the Alpena area in 1986 and found a delightful community...an effective Community College, a daily paper, local radio and television stations, a viable, although struggling downtown, an enclosed mall, community theater, museums, a well equipped hospital, and lots of lakefront, both Huron and inland. There was and still are, numerous viable employers of considerable size, several rooted in the history of the community. I asked the then mayor what he would say to a senior graduating from the only high school in the county? His response, "leave". Tragic as it may sound, it was an honest appraisal of his view of the immediate future. There had been significant labor strife with one of the major employers that resulted in the closure of the facility. It has since reopened and the new owner implemented the changes necessary for the plant to be competitive in a world marketplace. The wages are substantial, but the job numbers are far fewer, as the plant now employs contemporary manufacturing practices. They were necessary, but as is often the case, very hard to accept. The other challenge to the community was the constant need to compare themselves to Michigan's Gold Coast of Traverse City. Yes, Traverse City is advantaged in many ways with sandy beaches and topography that supports the winter sports like skiing. However, this 'newby' could not sway the locals with my admonitions of the availability of lakefront that was still affordable to the 'ordinary Joe' as contrasted to the economy of the West coast. Yes, Alpena had been a place that offered employment in the depths of the depression as its products were in demand by the Federal government's projects, cement, lumber, paper, and the industries that made products for their applications. At the time of the late 80's it was apparent even then, that healthcare would be a challenge for the locals, many of whom are not covered by an employer's insurance, but would also prove to be a problem for the exploding numbers of the new retiree class. This new group who came North and either converted their former vacation home to their permanent residence or others who inflated the cost of the residential market when they took the equity derived from their suburban downstate properties and transferred it to the likes of counties Alcona, Presque Isle, Montmorency, Otsego, and the balance of the northeast Michigan mitten. Hospitals always few and far between, became rarer as several like Roger's City and Edmore, closed their doors, unable to sustain the ever spiraling costs of providing service. Newly minted residents accustomed to the major medical centers of metropolitan areas in the south of the lower peninsula were as frustrated at the distance they now had to travel for healthcare. Not surprisingly these were the same folks who couldn't understand that 'cable' was not in the neighborhood. I met with many interested parties over this concern, but like other parts of the U.S. the aging phenomenon, the costs to address these issues plague government at all levels. The challenge in the UP is more dramatic, isolation due to time and distance and lack of surface routes of more than the ubiquitous two lane variety continue to dominate the discussion. The Northeast lower peninsula has long debated the need for expansion of the thoroughfare known as US-23. Despite the good efforts of many, with projects like the 'Sunrise Side' marketing campaigns, the Northeast and UP have much catching up to do.
Tom Wagner
Thu, 04/30/2015 - 2:39pm
The 1st of the Baby Boomers will turn 70 next year. They will be followed by 76 million more over the next 20 years. By all measures, they're the wealthiest, most active, and most physically fit elder generation in history. With mobile pensions, where are they looking to spend their non-working years? In attractive, safe, low-cost, friendly communities that offer recreation, good food, and health-care facilities. But in addition, they like water. There's something inherently enjoyable and relaxing about looking out to a lake, sailing or fishing, swimming or hiking along a lake. Northern Michigan can attract these wealth-bringing Baby Boomers but need to make sure that their lake shores remain clean and accessible to all.