Graying Howard a growing concern


As a brand-new town catering to young families, Columbia boasted swimming pools, playgrounds and schools galore. Hardly anybody noticed what was missing: a cemetery, nursing homes, senior housing.

"Who needs a cemetery when you're 30?" said Marshall Donley, 69, who moved to the planned community 30 years ago as the father of two preschoolers.

Thirty-five years after it was conceived as a young person's paradise, Columbia is growing grayer by the day. And the unmet needs of its surging senior population - set to more than triple during the next 25 years - suddenly are on a lot of people's minds.

Columbia and the rest of Howard County are trying to reinvent themselves as an attractive place to spend one's golden years - a tall order in an area where public transportation is scarce and housing expensive.

Full of 1970s-era split-levels and newer McMansions, Columbia has few private homes built for wheelchairs, walkers and empty-nesters. And although a cemetery has sprouted in River Hill, senior housing remains hard to find. There's a two-year wait to get into the only place in town with independent living, assisted living and nursing care under one roof.

"I tell you, we've got a big job ahead," said Phyllis Madachy, administrator of the Howard County Office on Aging.

There is an upside to an older Columbia that makes community leaders eager to keep seniors in town: They're a relatively affluent population who have time to volunteer, don't tangle much with police or take up space in county classrooms.

Cultural shifts could be on the way, too. Acres of handicapped parking at the mall. Bath-water temperatures in public pools. And forget about getting a table during the early-bird special.

"They may play symphonies at Symphony Woods instead of rock 'n' roll," said Chuck Greenslit, 79, a retired engineer from Ellicott City who serves on the county's Commission on Aging.

Nine community boards meet regularly to plan for the swelling senior tide, from the Caregiver Resource Coalition to the Fall Prevention Advisory Board. Their goals range from installing grab bars in bathrooms to finding therapists to treat depression, which afflicts more than half of Howard County seniors, according to an Office on Aging survey last year funded by the Horizon Foundation.

Howard County General Hospital is looking as far afield as elementary schools to recruit future nurses for elderly patients, who account for 44 percent of the hospital's revenues, even though they make up 10 percent of the county's population, said Paul M. Gleichauf, the hospital's senior vice president for planning. The 179-bed facility will need 25 percent more beds in 10 years, he said.

Developers plan to build about 1,400 houses, townhouses and apartments for seniors in the county. Nonprofit groups are planning a national aging conference to be held in Howard in the summer, and filing a flurry of grant applications, hoping to expand programs that help seniors live in their own homes. Local gyms are focusing on older flab-fighters.

"The aging of the population is a critical issue," said Richard M. Krieg, president of the Horizon Foundation in Columbia which, with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will serve as host of the national Aging in Place conference in June.

This focus on the elderly might seem strange in a county that has the state's lowest share of senior citizens. Ten percent of Howard residents have reached their 60th birthday, compared with 15 percent statewide.

But the county also has the state's highest percentage of baby boomers. These 38- to 56-year-olds make up 35 percent of Howard's population, compared with 32 percent of the state's.

As the baby boomers hit senior status and the nation as a whole ages, the trend will be even more pronounced in Howard. In addition, many baby boomers have relocated their elderly parents to the county so they can take care of them, adding to the senior ranks.

Even so, Howard will not have an inordinately high percentage of seniors. The Maryland Department of Planning projects that in 2020, they will make up 23 percent of the county's population, compared with 22.5 percent of the state's and 21 percent of the nation's.

What gives planners pause is how quickly Howard will age - changing from one of the state's most youthful communities to one of its oldest in the span of a generation. In 20 years, there will be more seniors than schoolchildren in a county where kids currently outnumber older residents nearly three to one. At present, one in 10 Howard residents is older than 60. In 30 years, about one in three will be.

Meeting their needs will be challenging because of the way Columbia was created 35 years ago: out of farmland, with young families in mind. Developer James W. Rouse designed the town to attract people of all races, religions and incomes. But for years, age diversity was not a focus of the melting pot.

"The Rouse plan was wonderful. I think he did a great job, but he didn't think of retirees," said longtime resident Donley. "What they wanted were people to come in as workers and taxpayers and people with kids in the schools."

But Donley, who is chairman of the Columbia Association Senior Advisory Committee, has no doubt that the next wave of seniors will get what they need, in part because the baby boomers will be more demanding than the generation that precedes them.

Len Rogers offers a glimpse of the challenges and promise of the coming senior boom. Now 77, he was older than the average Columbian when he moved to town from New Jersey in 1976, and his two children were grown.

A few years ago, after he retired as a chemical and industrial engineer, the widower started working out at the Columbia Association gym in Harper's Choice. A personal trainer specializing in elder exercise taught him to lift weights. Now Rogers has completed training to teach other seniors to pump iron.

A few years ago, all three Columbia Association gyms started offering exercise programs tailored to older adults. The Harper's Choice location made sure its new carpeting didn't have the sort of decorative details that can trip up people with bifocals.

But that kind of accommodation can't be found in every realm. Rogers lives in a second-story condominium on Wilde Lake that is not accessible to disabled people. When a neighbor on the third floor had his leg amputated, Rogers said, "he had to go up and down on his bottom."

Rogers intends to stay in Columbia. He likes the lake and the activities at the gym. And he doesn't intend to let the front steps at his condominium get in his way.

"If you want to sit home when you get to be 70 ... and watch television and bemoan your fate because you're older, that's your choice," he said. "There's so much to do here."

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