Senior population soars

The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore region is going gray.

While the region's population showed a modest increase of about 4 percent from 2000 through 2007, the number of residents ages 55 to 64 and those 85 and older increased by about a third, according to an analysis of U.S. census data released today.

The former group is the result of the baby boom generation reaching retirement age; the latter, an aging society living longer.

"Longevity has increased so much," said Rose Viscidi, a resident of Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville who is her in 80s. She takes daily aerobics classes and keeps busy, engaging in a lifestyle that has become more the norm for her age group.

"You can be as active as you like here," said Viscidi. "Or you can sit in your apartment and do nothing. For me, I like being in an intellectually stimulating environment."

After Viscidi became a widow, she moved from Vermont to Baltimore County so she could live closer to her son. At Charlestown, she takes courses such as an introduction to archaeology, plays bridge, dines with friends every night and goes to on-site movies on Saturdays.

The numbers that show an aging population are among data released by the U.S. Census Bureau. The figures break down county population estimates through July 1, 2007, by age, sex, race and Hispanic origin.

In Howard County, the population of residents between 60 and 64 jumped more than 70 percent between 2000 and 2007, and 11.6 percent in the past year.

In Baltimore County, those 85 and older number nearly 40 percent more than seven years ago and almost 5 percent more than last year. In Baltimore City, which showed an overall decrease in population, the number of residents 85 and older went up 16.5 percent in the same period.

The figures follow a national graying trend. In 24 counties in the United States, at least one-quarter of the population is 65 or older. Nine of the counties are in Florida.

In 1950, only about 0.4 percent of the country's population was 85 or older. By 2050, that is expected to grow to 5 percent, and Maryland has one of the 10 fastest-growing populations, according to the Brookings Institution.

Those 65 and older accounted for 8.1 percent of the nation's population in 1950 and are expected to reach 20.7 percent in 2050.

But while the 55-to-69-year-old group and the very old populations have shown steep increases, the population of those in their 70s has decreased in the Baltimore region and state over the past seven years, a lingering result of lower birth rates during the Great Depression.

Demographers say the trend is twofold. Baby boomers are getting older, resulting in a natural bulge in the 55-to-64-year-old range. And overall longevity and increased access to health care are causing the 80-plus group to live longer.

"The population trend increase for baby boomers is a trend that's occurring nationally and is to be expected," said Joseph DeMattos Jr., senior state director for the AARP. "The 85-year-old-and-plus boom is a nationwide trend as well. All of these trends are related to earlier birth rates and a longevity bonus relative to how long people are living."

"What's interesting about the boomers specifically is that their life is all about security, independence and engagement," he said. "They've redefined what it means to be older in America."

State officials say they are monitoring the figures closely.

"What you're starting to see is the impact of the aging of the population," said Ilene W. Rosenthal, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Aging. "We know it's going to have a big impact on the things we do. We are looking at different ways to keep people engaged in community life and to extend their labor-force participation."

The census data also reveal a continuing trend of the non-Hispanic white population remaining steady or decreasing, while minority groups increase.

In Baltimore County, for example, there were about 4 percent fewer white residents in 2007 compared with 2000, while the black population has grown more than 28 percent.

"Just in terms of sheer numbers, Baltimore County had the largest increase in the African-American population in the state," said Mark Goldstein, an economist with the Maryland Department of Planning.

And across the region, Hispanics - defined as an ethnicity, not a race - have seen spikes in numbers.

"In some counties the growth in the non-Hispanic white population is stopping and starting to decline," said Goldstein. "All the growth is a function of minority growth."

Goldstein said that the largest increase in median age in the state occurred in Howard County, which aged 2.4 years between 2000 and 2007. "The population is aging, that's clear," he said. "It's aging more rapidly in Howard County among the six jurisdictions in the Baltimore region.

"You had all the suburban growth in the '70s and '80s and '90s," he said. "So a lot of this aging that you're seeing now is an aging in place."

Family is a big draw in attracting elderly to an area or keeping them there.

"Some families will move residents in from out of town," said Sharon Kruskamp, executive director of the Heartlands Retirement Community in Howard County.

Others stay precisely because of family. That was the case for James Hackman, 79, who has lived in the Heartlands for a little over a year. "We wanted to stay in this area primarily because we have three children here and six grand-children and they're all in the area," said Hackman.

Hackman had lived in Glen Burnie for more than 40 years and said the ample senior housing in the area gave him plenty of choice. He toured senior housing in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard counties before settling down, he said.

Maryland developers are trying to seize the 55-plus housing market, hoping to prevent seniors from migrating to more traditional retirement areas, such as Florida and North Carolina.

Annapolis-based Ribera Development LLC is awaiting final approval for a planned 2,000-home, 55-plus community in Crofton.

It's the company's first venture into 55-plus housing. Eric DeVito, vice president, said the idea came to them when his partner toured a similar development in New Jersey and found that residents were happy to be closer to their families.

"There is a demand for it here," he said. "There are folks who don't want to move to Florida. They want the retirement lifestyle and all the amenities, but they want the kids to be down the street or close enough that they can see them quite often."

But Maryland lags behind other areas, said Rosenthal, of the state Department of Aging.

"Our housing stock really didn't anticipate the needs of people who would age in place," she said. "Most of our homes have physical barriers in them. For people who want to be able to age in place, they have to deal with modifications to their homes."

Some demographers say that although states like Maryland are seeing increases in their aging populations, there is still a shift from the more expensive states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic to the south and west.

"The population is still increasing at a very fast pace overall," said Mark Mather, a demographer with the Washington, D.C.-based Population Reference Bureau.

"But Maryland was actually one of the states where we saw baby boomers moving out, and they seemed attracted to Florida and the Carolinas and the mountain West states. ... They tend to favor places that are less crowded, less expensive and have more amenities."

Some, like Elizabeth Mohan, 61, are determined to stay in Maryland.

Mohan, of Pikesville, works with older patients and residents at Levindale Geriatrics Center and Specialty Hospital in Northwest Baltimore. She said she has found the best place to grow old - here in Maryland.

Mohan moved to the Baltimore area in 1982 from Jamaica after trying New York and Florida, both of which she didn't like.

"I know that I'm getting older, and I think what is going to happen when I get to their age," Mohan said referring to her patients. "But I think this is a good place for us.

"It's a clean state, everything is around you. ... I think I'll retire here."

Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.

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