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Town showing touch of gray as residents age More 'D transportation, health programs likely to be needed; 10% of population elderly; Planned community was first focused on young families


The new town of Columbia, whose appeal to young families in its formative years lent it a kind of Peter Pan atmosphere, increasingly is showing signs of graying.

The planned community's population of residents 60 and older increased from 4.3 percent in 1980 to an estimated 10 percent this year, according to U.S. Census and Howard County figures.

That growth represents a "much more rapid" rate of aging than the nation's, said Richard Suzman, demographics director at the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda.

And it means that Columbia and the county will have to provide more in the way of transportation, affordable housing and programs for its 8,200 senior citizens in a community that up to now has concentrated more on its younger residents.

Many longtime residents have noticed the difference in a 28-year-old community of 82,000 that didn't get its first -- and only -- funeral home until 1980 and its first cemetery until 1989.

Duane St. Clair, a 20-year Columbia resident and an assistant administrator with the county's Office on Aging, says he never saw elderly people during his first trips to The Mall in Columbia, but now is "amazed at the number of older people" walking and shopping.

Dotty Rodbell says her Wilde Lake village neighborhood -- one of Columbia's oldest -- was overrun with children in the 1970s. But now her street is dominated by empty-nesters.

"When we moved here, it was strange to see anyone over 50, and now it's typical," said Mrs. Rodbell, 59, a social worker who moved to Columbia in 1971 with her husband, Stanley, 61, and three children.

And Rabbi Martin Siegel, leader of the Columbia Jewish Congregation for 23 years, said the only funeral services he performed for many years were for unexpected deaths; now the ceremonies are more a routine fact of life.

Columbia still is quite youthful compared with the nation as a whole, in which 17 percent of citizens were 60 and older as of the 1990 Census.

But the aging of Columbia's residents mirrors the trend in Howard County. The proportion of residents 60 and older increased from about 8 percent, or 9,435, in 1980 to an estimated 9.4 percent, or 20,500, this year. That number is projected to grow to 16 percent, or 46,637, by 2010.

"The look of the community is going to be real different," said Jessica Rowe, the vice chairwoman of the Howard County Commission on Aging and a social worker who counsels the elderly. "We can't turn our backs on a community whose needs change as they grow older, or they'll be forced to leave."

Those changing needs require providing a range of housing options, she said. Though Columbia has the county's greatest concentration of housing for moderate- and low-income seniors, demand still far outweighs supply, said Leonard Vaughan, administrator of the county's Office of Housing and Community Development.

For example, Carriage Run, a year-old housing complex for the elderly with below-market rental rates, has a waiting list at least two years long for its 104 units.

The new town is graying, say senior-citizen advocates, because pioneers are aging in place, having moved here at Columbia's founding. They include such residents as Leon Rose, 71, who came to Columbia with his family in 1969 for its progressive public schools.

Other seniors, such as Alice Harris, 77, are moving to Columbia from across the country to unite with relatives. The lifelong Memphis resident settled at Carriage Run last year to be with a son and his family.

Many seniors say Columbia is a good place to live, and say they are able to participate more fully in the community than would be possible in a retirement enclave. They give it high marks for county programs.

But they also say some services are lacking, particularly transportation and Columbia Association programs to meet their needs and interests.

ColumBus, a bus system run by the association, is inaccessible to many frail or disabled elderly and doesn't make enough stops, say senior advocates. The Urban Rural Transportation Authority, which provides van service for disabled and elderly residents, must be reserved days in advance.

Neither runs at night or on weekends, hampering many seniors' ability to participate fully in community life and making some feel like prisoners in their homes, advocates say.

"Transportation is still a very large problem," Ms. Rowe said. "It's not just about being able to get out and around, it's about lifestyle."

Mr. Rose, a member of a group of visually impaired seniors at the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia, says the transportation problem frustrates those who can't drive in a suburban community dominated by the automobile.

"Consulting groups have come up with the same conclusions, and the county has done nothing about it," he said. "It will take a major, committed effort to solve that problem."

Senior advocates say the Columbia Association, which wants to divest itself of ColumBus, shouldn't relinquish its role in providing transportation, or at least in advocating on residents' behalf.

"To feel they don't have a role in transportation is to let down a big segment of the population," Ms. Rowe said.

Several seniors and a citizens group -- Columbians for Howard County -- also are urging the association to plan more recreational and social programs for seniors and to determine their other needs.

The citizens group says seniors are "largely unserved" compared with younger people, and has urged the nonprofit organization to establish an advisory committee of seniors.

"We're not looking for that much in preferential treatment or taking money away from other groups," said Richard Kirchner, 70, a member of Columbians for Howard County and former deputy director of the Maryland Office on Aging. "We're just looking for a focus and effort that's needed for a community changing in demographics."

Roy T. Lyons, 73, the elder statesman on the Columbia Council, CA's board of directors, said he will propose forming a liaison committee of seniors at the council's Eastern Shore retreat this weekend.

"We're starting from ground zero," he said. "We haven't reached out to that group and we've got to."

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