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Utah is a good place to retire but has some work to do to better support its rapidly growing older population, said a longtime advocate for older adults.
Though Utah is still the youngest state in the country, its 65 and older population boomed between 2010 and 2020.
The Beehive State’s senior population grew nearly three times as fast as the state’s overall population, according to a report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
As the state’s population of people aged 65 and older rapidly increases, there are opportunities and challenges, said Alan Ormsby, Utah state director of AARP.
Utah has some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere and a good health system, he said.
But the state continues to tax Social Security income — one of only 11 states still doing so. And its high housing costs could present future challenges, Ormsby said, adding that local officials should be looking to make sure communities are livable for older adults.
Ormsby added there’s been good movement on Social Security taxes, including relief for more people as part of tax cuts passed earlier this year, but seniors generally tell AARP they’d like to see the tax eliminated.
State Rep. Walt Brooks, a Republican from St. George, sponsored bills about giving more people relief from taxes on Social Security benefits. Lawmakers have an appetite for getting rid of the tax, he said, but have been removing it with “little pieces at a time.”
Utah is still the youngest state
In 2020, Utah maintained its status as the youngest state with a median age of 31.3 despite an increase in the median age.
Utah also has the smallest share of residents aged 65 or older at 11.7%.
Alaska, Texas, and Washington D.C. are close with 13.5% or less of their residents being 65 or older.
Older residents make up 20% or more of the population in four U.S. states — Maine, Florida, Vermont and West Virginia.
But while Utah is still young, it’s getting older.
Senior population increased by 53% in a decade
Utah’s overall population grew by 18% between 2010 and 2020.
The state’s older population grew by 53% in that same timeframe from 249,462 to 381,797 seniors.
Growth in individual counties averaged 48.3% and varied from 16.6% in Piute County to 127.7% in Wasatch County.
Summit and Wasatch counties saw the biggest boom, with their 65+ populations more than doubling. But they still have a relatively low senior population.
The surge wasn’t all that surprising, said Wasatch County Manager Dustin Grabau, and a big factor driving the increase is high property values.
“It’s just not as affordable for younger homeowners or families,” he said. “We tend to import a lot of retirees.”
Still, most Utahns aged 65 and older are concentrated in the southwestern and far northeastern parts of the state.
Six counties — Daggett, Garfield, Kane, Piute, Washington and Wayne — have at least a 20% share of residents who are 65 or older.
In comparison, the Wasatch Front is home to more seniors, but those residents make up a smaller share of the population.
Utah, Salt Lake, Davis, Cache and Tooele counties have the smallest share of residents age 65 and older.
State tax on social security: “They hate it.”
Though seniors are spread out across the state, they face similar challenges.
The biggest issue for AARP members is the state tax on social security, Ormsby said.
“They hate it, to put it lightly,” he said. “People feel like they’ve been taxed once on those Social Security dollars. When they retire, they don’t want to have to pay state taxes on federal taxes.”
Social Security beneficiaries may be subject to federal income tax on their monthly benefits, depending on their total income.
Utah, along with Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia also levy their own taxes on benefits.
Though Utah still taxes Social Security benefits, recipients who make under a certain amount can get that money refunded.
Couples and heads of households in Utah who report yearly income of $62,000 or less and individuals reporting $37,000 or less qualify for a full tax credit on their benefit income. Those earning more can still get a partial break on their benefits, with the tax credit reduced by 25 cents for each dollar above the income thresholds.
But thanks to a tax-cut package approved in March, people probably don’t have to pay those taxes unless they’re making “quite a bit,” Ormsby said.
The package expanded the exemption for Social Security benefits to individuals making up to $45,000 and joint filers with incomes up to $75,000 for the 2023 tax year.
According to Gov. Spencer Cox’s budget book, that will provide low- and middle-income seniors with about $15 million in tax relief.
AARP called the package a success, but other states do better, Ormsby said.
An AARP survey found 66% of Utahns support eliminating the income tax on Social Security benefits, including more than 60% of Republicans, Democrats and Independents and more than half of people from various age ranges.
Brooks said there is an appetite for that. Another legislator sponsored a bill to eliminate them entirely, he said, but they still generate more than $100 million in revenue for the state.
Instead of getting rid of the tax in one go, Utah’s state lawmakers are eliminating it piece by piece for different individuals, the they plan to continue doing so, Brooks said.
Legislators want to figure out how to use fewer taxes in general and give people money back when possible, he said.
Housing, caregiving, livability are also considerations
Housing costs are another challenge for a couple of reasons, Ormsby said.
For one, older people looking to move to Utah for retirement may have to think twice about whether they can afford housing, he said.
But housing costs are also a potential concern for older adults who can afford to buy here, he said, since they’re pricing out younger generations.
Communities like Summit and Wasatch counties are attracting older adults who will need help, he said, but housing costs are pricing out younger adults who would provide support.
Utahns also need to consider caregiving, whether they’re providing care for their aging parents or know someone who is. Families need to be prepared and have tough conversations about putting together a will, estate planning and more, Ormsby said.
People around the caregiver also need to muster as much help as they can for that person, he said, because caregivers often get overlooked.
Area Agencies on Aging have great resources for people who need or are providing care, Ormsby said. There are links to local AAAs at ucoa.utah.edu/area-agencies-on-aging.php.
Finally, as growth differs by county and city, local officials need to look at what makes communities livable for seniors, Ormsby said.
That includes having safe, walkable streets, access to services and opportunities for people of all ages to participate in community life, according to AARP’s definition of livable communities.
And it benefits more than just seniors, Ormsby said.
“What’s good for an 80-year-old is also good for a six-year-old, typically,” he said.
Wasatch County has some amenities that are geared solely to older adults, including a senior center that Grabau describes as “top notch” and a Meals on Wheels program the county is looking to expand.
Other offerings benefit the community as a whole — even though county officials considered seniors specifically when planning them.
A new, local transit system “will enable more residents to age in place,” Grabau said, while also providing fare-free rides to the entirety of the Heber Valley. And updating facilities for easier access will benefit not just seniors, but also people of all ages with mobility issues, he said.
Wasatch County officials are looking for more opportunities and best practices, he said, and are looking to other high-growth communities like Summit and Tooele counties as examples.
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