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Older Americans With a Disability: 2008-2012

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Report Number ACS-29


Disability, as defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act, is an individual’s physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of that individual.1 Studies consistently find that disability rates rise with age (Altman and Bernstein, 2008; Brault, 2012). Beyond age 65, the oldest old (aged 85 and over) are at highest risk for disease and disability (National Institutes of Health, 2010), and among them, disability prevalence increases rapidly with age (He and Muenchrath, 2011).

Changes in population age structure are contributing to a growing number of older people with a disability. In the past several decades, the U.S. older population itself has been aging—the proportion of the oldest-old segment (aged 85 and over) of the older population has increased from 8.8 percent in 1980 to 13.6 percent in 2010 (West et al., 2014). Given higher prevalence rates among the oldest old, this changing composition of the older population has increased the number with a disability.

Baby Boomers started to enter the older age ranks in 2011, and they will swell the size of the older population in the next 2 decades.2 The number of older people with a disability could also expand rapidly. Thus, it is important to identify those among the older population most at risk for disability in order to help older people with a disability and their families plan strategies to deal with daily activity difficulties.

In recent decades, the concept of disability has shifted from an individual, medical perspective to a social model in which disability is viewed as the result of social and physical barriers (World Health Organization and the World Bank, 2011). The International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health recognizes the value of both models and views disability as arising from the interaction of health conditions and environmental and personal factors (Leonardi et al., 2006). The U.S. Census Bureau modified the American Community Survey (ACS) questions on disability starting in 2008 to better reflect this new paradigm.

This report presents an overview of the older population with a disability during 2008–2012. Data for this report come from the ACS 5-year estimates with interviews conducted in 2008 to 2012 pooled together. The 5-year estimates are ideal for conducting meaningful and statistically reliable analyses of special population groups, such as the older population with a disability, not only for the entire nation, but also for states and counties. The report examines the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics, as well as the geographic distribution of the older population with a disability, with a focus on those in poverty or living alone.

1 This definition is from the 2008 Amendment Act to the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). For more information, see <www.ada.gov/pubs/adastatute08.htm#12102note>.
2 The Baby Boom includes people born from mid-1946 to 1964. The Baby Boom is distinguished by a dramatic increase in birth rates following World War II and comprises one of the largest generations in U.S. history.

Page Last Revised - October 8, 2021
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