HILO, Hawaii Island — Long known for its green rainforests, black lava fields and white-tipped mountains, the Big Island is now turning many shades of gray.
More than one in four Big Islanders – 27.4 percent – is 60 or older, according to the latest population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s higher than Kauai (26.1 percent), Maui County (23.6 percent) and Honolulu (22.4 percent).
“And it’s growing. Every year I think it’s like 2 (percent) to 3 percent it grows,” C. Kimo Alameda, Hawaii County executive on aging.
While most are longtime residents, Alameda estimates up 20 percent are Hawaii transplants from other islands, many of whom are seeking a lower cost of living for their retirement years. Areas like Puna offer that, he said.
“It’s basically the baby boomer population. They are coming here,” he said.
The median age of Big Island residents has risen for at least the last six consecutive years, according to the 2016 census figures, which listed the island’s largest age demographic as the 60-to-64 age group. The census estimates 19.1 percent of residents are at least 65, up from 14.5 percent in 2010, and eclipsing the 2016 statewide total of 17.1 percent.
A “silver tsunami” is the term aging experts have coined for the trend.
“It’s definitely on the shoreline,” Alameda said. “In 10 years, we’ll be inundated with seniors needing services.”
In Hilo, that means housing, the demand for which is already outpacing a growing supply.
“All indications are there’s a lot of demand out there,” said Keith Kato, executive director of the nonprofit Hawaii Island Community Development Corporation.“What we do know is every (senior housing) project we build, it’s filled very quickly.”
In April 2014, HICDC opened the first phase of its Mohouli Heights Senior Neighborhood offered to people at least 62 years old and earning no more than 50 percent of the area’s median income. Strong demand generated 248 applicants for the rental project’s initial 60 housing units, Kato said at the time.
Another 30 units became available last November, but the waiting list still tops 100 applicants, he said. Construction is set to start this summer on a 92-unit expansion that will more than double the project’s current size.
“We’ve got to keep building them because there’s more and more demand,” Kato said, noting a new onsite adult day center should be finished in April.
There’s also a demand for transportation tailored to reaching the island’s many rural areas. Luana Mills, 73, said her recent move to Mountain View has left her outside the routes of Meals on Wheels, on which she used to rely.
“I’m finding there’s a problem with transportation,” said Mills, who now gets rides from her daughter.
“I think it’s very important for seniors to get out of their four walls,” she said.
Pam Levins, 65, is finding that much easier to do on the Big Island than when she lived in Reno, Nevada.
“Because of the weather,” Levins said when asked the reason for her recent move here. “When you get older, 20 degrees and snow and ice is bad.”
Her significant other previously lived on Oahu, and Levins said she feels safer than she did in Reno’s urban environment.
“We were going to try this out. We’ve been here three months, and we’re not going back,” she said during a recent visit to Hawaii County’s Kamana Senior Center.
Like many active seniors, Levins was exploring some of the center’s numerous classes, which is one of the low-cost programs available to Big Island kupuna.
“It’s unbelievable,” she said of prices for the leisure, educational and health-related classes costing just $1 per weekly session for a typical 10-week course. They’re open to seniors at least 55 years old.
Iris Higa, program director for the county’s Elderly Recreation Services program run under its Department of Parks and Recreation, said she tries to add three or four new classes every quarter.
“And that’s just to accommodate new people coming in,” Higa said before pointing out a full Qi Kuong class.
Unlike some of their mainland counterparts, Big Island seniors who live in their own homes are eligible for age-based property tax breaks. The standard owner-occupant exemption, a kind of discount, doubles at age 60, for an additional savings of up to $246 a year. Another discount of up to $123 annually, based on current tax rates, kicks in at age 70.
And then there’s the recently renovated Hilo Municipal Golf Course, where resident golfers 60 and older can still purchase a monthly card for $35 that allows play for $1 a round on weekdays or $3 on weekends and holidays. Rates were not changed following a $17.5 million renovation completed in late 2016. A $100 bill can get a resident senior a round of golf every day of the month.
But seniors can face tremendous costs for health care. Alameda said a nursing home can run $15,000 monthly. In-home care costs about $600 a month, he said, which is why social service providers focus on aiding seniors to live independently.
Either way, seniors are stimulating the island’s economy by paying for food, housing and other services, typically without competing for the jobs that provide them, he said.