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The Associated Press May 19, 2011, 12:25PM ET

Census shows fresh proof of graying of Pa.

Pennsylvania is showing its gray in Census figures being released Thursday, with the median age of residents having inched past 40 as the first baby boomers approach retirement age.

Counties in rural northern Pennsylvania, as well as areas in western parts of the state once teeming with steel mills and coal mines were among the oldest in the commonwealth, according to the statistics from the 2010 head count providing fresh evidence of a long-developing trend.

Also factoring in is the maturation of the massive baby boom generation, the oldest of whom turn 65 this year. Plus, the percentage of Pennsylvania homes with children dipped to 29.9, down from 32.6 percent in 2000.

The consequences are broad in Pennsylvania. While leaders try to reverse the "brain drain" of young, educated residents to warmer or more lucrative locales, state lawmakers mull balancing the needs of a population living longer while trying to cut into a massive budget deficit.

"It impacts everything from housing to transportation to child care. Cultural institutions, medical care and even the trajectory of how people define their lives," said Dr. Neil Resnick, director of the University of Pittsburgh Institute on Aging. "Most people born now have a good chance of making it to 100, so in that context why would you need to figure out what your major is by 21 or 22?"

The median age of Pennsylvania's 12.7 million residents in 2010 was 40.1, up from 38.0 in 2000, according to the latest batch of census data that sheds more light on age and household makeup. Data for all states have yet to be released, so a national comparison can't be made.

A separate Census Bureau survey in 2009 had Pennsylvania tied with New Hampshire for the fifth- oldest median age in the country behind Maine, Vermont, West Virginia and Florida.

There was a 29 percent increase in the number of residents age 85 and older to more than 305,000, though they represent just over 2 percent of the population.

"It just means increased demands for social services and a political conundrum for politicians who want to cut funding for them," said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

There was a 2 percent jump in the number of residents 65 and older to about 1.9 million, or about 15 percent of the population.

But the 2010 count was taken at a time when the oldest baby boomers -- those born between 1946 and 1964 -- were just a year from retirement age of 65. Those residents began celebrating their 65th this year, a demographic wave so large that researchers have referred to it as the "aging tsunami."

As of 2010, the number of Pennsylvanians age 45-64 rose about 25 percent to more than 3.5 million. They make up 28 percent of the state's population, up from 23 percent a decade ago.

Medical advances, a focus on healthier lifestyles and better management of chronic diseases have Americans living longer. For example, just 4 percent of Americans were 65 or older at the turn of the 20th century, Resnick said.

In western Pennsylvania at least, Resnick has noticed that people 65 and older and healthy generally don't put large demands on the health care system and in some cases move away to warmer climates. But they return to Pennsylvania when they need medical care, to move closer to the children or other family they initially left behind.

Bill Farley, executive director of the Area Agency on Aging for Bradford, Sullivan, Susquehanna and Tioga Counties in northeastern Pennsylvania said his agency has 75 people on a waiting list for services. They get state money derived from lottery proceeds and the federal Older Americans Act, he said.

Sullivan County had the highest median age in the state at 49.9. Nearly 1 out of 4 residents there are 65 and older, and about 1 of 5 households have children.

Farley worries about the trickle-down effects of the budget debate in Harrisburg. One of his concerns, he said, was whether there would be a cap on the number of people eligible for the Aging Waiver program, which gives patients who are clinically-eligible for nursing home care and meet Medicaid-financial criteria the option to have comparable services provided at home. It also costs less for taxpayers to provide for the home services than to place a patient in a nursing home.

"We're very concerned. I know there are competing priorities at the state and federal level," Farley said. "But at the same token we have an ever-increasing population. One of our hopes and goals is to see if the private sector will help pay for the needs of the older population."

Medicaid, the federal program designed to help states pay for medical and long-term care for the poor and disabled, is one of the state's biggest obligations, accounting for more than one-fifth of the state budget. State officials have said Pennsylvania's rising Medicaid costs is in part due to the number of elderly people who need care and can't afford it.

The elderly are the fastest-growing group of Medicaid recipients in Pennsylvania, according to the Department of Public Welfare, and the costliest on average. They make up 14 percent of Pennsylvania's more than 2 million Medicaid recipients and account for 33 percent of the spending.

Another brewing problem nationally, but especially in rural areas, is a lack of geriatricians to treat the growing older population, Resnick said. While about 5,000 to 10,000 people a day turn 65, medical schools graduate fewer than 100 doctors a year who specialize in geriatrics and stay in the United States to practice, he said.

To help make up for the shortfall, Resnick said Pitt is helping to train family practice physicians or other medical staffers in geriatric issues to spot potential ailments more quickly.

Conversely, college and universities have been also been preparing given an expected decline or leveling off in the number of Pennsylvania children. For instance, there were about 791,000 state residents age 10-14 in 2010, or 72,000 fewer than 2000.

Pennsylvania colleges in part have started targeting out of state students more, and while others are trying to recruit more non-traditional students. Some institutions, like Penn State, have also started catering to retirees eager to live in retirement communities near campus that would give them the amenities, learning opportunities and relative affordability of a university setting, said Donald Heller, director of Penn State's Center for the Study of Higher Education.



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