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The Nation

Suburbs Struggle to Adapt as Their Residents Grow Gray

As younger families move out, the percentage of elderly increases. Services readily available in cities are few or nonexistent.

February 09, 2003|Genaro C. Armas | Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — The face of suburbia is changing, especially in the industrial Northeast and Midwest.

Younger families are moving out, leaving large populations of older residents and local officials who must try to meet the demand for services for the aging.

For example, providing transportation for the elderly to visit doctors or senior centers can be a major problem for a suburb, said Mary Ellen Walsh, director of the Amherst Center for Senior Services in suburban Buffalo, N.Y., where 17% of residents are senior citizens. "In the city, you have access to public transportation, but in suburbs and rural areas, you don't, and that's a big issue because people are so spread out," Walsh said.

Alice Hilliard, director of Eastern Area Adult Services in the Pittsburgh suburb of Wilkinsburg, Pa., said reaching out to older people who live in isolated areas, plus finding money and volunteers to help care for them, are daunting tasks, particularly in economically depressed areas.

"Sometimes we sit and hold our heads and think, 'How is this all going to come together?' " Hilliard said.

Many couples moved to the suburbs to raise families in the mid-20th century. When factories closed and the economies of industrial cities declined during the latter decades, younger people moved away.

Many headed south and west, where jobs were more plentiful. Once their parents reached retirement age, many sought warmer weather and a better quality of life. They also moved south and west, such as to Phoenix, Las Vegas and Sarasota, Fla.

About 35 million people 65 and older live in America, roughly 12% of the population. But nearly 30% of the people in the suburbs of Sarasota are 65 or older, the highest among the 102 most populous metropolitan areas in the nation, according to a Brookings Institution study of Census Bureau figures.

Two other Florida retirement centers, West Palm Beach and Tampa-St. Petersburg, were next on the list, although the rest of the Top 20 metro area suburbs were dominated by Northeast and Midwest areas around such cities as Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Youngstown, Ohio.

The 65-and-over population in the suburbs of El Paso rose 83% between 1990 and 2000, the largest gain of any metro area. Las Vegas; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Honolulu and Tucson had the next four largest gains.

University of Michigan demographer William Frey, who wrote the Brookings report, said boomtowns in the South and West generally have stronger economic bases to provide senior services than do the more depressed suburbs of the Northeast and Midwest.

Still, dealing with a huge influx of new older residents in a faltering economy isn't easy, said Pat Amaincangioli, a volunteer with the Clark County, Nev., Senior Advocate Program, which offers referral for older people in the Las Vegas area.

"We are going to have all those baby boomers here soon," she said. "And because of the recent economic unrest, they are not going to have their 401(k) plans."

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