Age is creeping up on rest of country

Pa.'s ranking among oldest states to drop

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Pennsylvania isn't getting any younger.

But other parts of the country are getting older, faster.

Between 2000 and 2030, Pennsylvania's number of residents age 65 and older is expected to have grown by "only" 50 percent, according to U.S. Census estimates released this week.

Remarkably, for a state with a reputation for drawing graybeards and few else, that's the smallest projected increase of the 50 states. The national growth in that group will be 104 percent, meaning the number of seniors in America will more than double by 2030, mainly because members of the Baby Boom generation will be in their upper 70s and early 80s by then.

It's not that the percentage of seniors in Pennsylvania is expected to go down -- in fact, it will grow from 2000's 15.6 percent to 22.6 percent in 2030. But the senior population in other states is accelerating far faster.

The upshot -- as of the 2000 U.S. Census, Pennsylvania had the second-highest proportion of seniors 65 and older, behind only Florida. (Pennsylvania's percentage of 65-and-older seniors was 15.6 in 2000, while Florida's was 17.6.) By 2030, the Census calculates, Pennsylvania will have dropped to 11th on that list. Florida, Maine, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia, Vermont, Delaware and South Dakota are all projected to be home to a greater proportion of 65-and-over seniors than Pennsylvania.

A sampler from around the country: California's 65-and-over crowd is expected to grow by 131 percent during the same period, Arizona's by 255 percent, Nevada's by 264 percent, Florida by 176 percent. In raw numbers, the nationwide aging boom hits harder elsewhere than it hits here, as seniors join the college grads who are flocking to warm states in the South and West.

But it's not just sunny states. Idaho's group of seniors will grow by 147 percent. Alaska's will grow by 256 percent, Washington state's by 136.

Why isn't our group growing as fast as everybody else's?

Partly, that's because many of the Baby Boomer workers who left Western Pennsylvania in the late 1970s and early 1980s -- workers then in their 30s -- are still gone, and as they advance into their senior years, they'll be doing it elsewhere. Partly, the "small" increase is reflective of the state's slow overall population growth -- only 4 percent between 2000 and 2030, the Census says.

But don't let the state's "drop" in the rankings fool you. By 2030, "there will be as many people 65 and older as there will be children under 15," said the state's Secretary of Aging, Nora Dowd Eisenhower.

"We're not getting younger, it's that we were old first."

There are some relative advantages to Pennsylvania's senior status. Mostly, it's a case of been there, done that -- while other states are merely preparing for an aging boom, we're living it. "Our social infrastructure has been forced to accommodate a higher proportion of elderly already," said Chris Briem, a social economist at the University of Pittsburgh.

In 2000, Pennsylvania was one of three states whose seniors accounted for more than 15 percent of the overall population. By 2030, 48 states will be in that boat.

The national growth among the elderly segment, and proportional decline among-working age residents who pay for social services, is likely to strain those social networks. Older residents -- especially those 85 and older -- tend to rely more on social services and government health care and drug programs.

Seniors have unique needs across the board, outside the traditional health and welfare areas. They need more accommodating transit systems, larger lettering on road signs to make them more readable, new types of housing. There are plenty of challenges to go around, for all areas of government, not just the Department of Aging.

"The world as you know it is going to look very different," Eisenhower said.


Bill Toland can be reached at btoland@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.


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