Metro Atlanta getting older quickly

Census shows fast growth in over-65 group

Metro Atlanta is rapidly graying, creating new priorities and problems for a region largely geared to young people and working families.

The number of people 65 and older grew by 44 percent from 2000 to 2010 within Atlanta's 28-county metropolitan statistical area, according to U.S. Census figures released today.

That's 145,000 additional seniors who need their own types of housing, transportation and recreational activities -- bringing the total number of seniors to nearly 472,000. In many areas, service providers are failing to keep pace with demand.

The regional growth of the senior population greatly exceeded the rate of overall population growth, which was 24 percent. The Atlanta region also is graying considerably faster than the nation as a whole;  nationally, the 65-and-older population grew by 13 percent from 2000 to 2009 (the latest census figure available, which is based on a population sample).

The trend has multiple sources. Across America, baby boomers are becoming senior citizens and older adults are living longer. The fact that Atlanta is outpacing the nation suggests that quite a few seniors are choosing to relocate here.

To understand the appeal of this region, talk to Gloria Earle. She moved four years ago to Powder Springs from Queens, N.Y., to cut down on the stress of city living. At 85, she still drives, carries a cell phone and lives in her own ranch-style home. She epitomizes the new style of senior living: active, healthy and not about to sit around all day knitting.

"I love the wide open spaces and beauty of Georgia," said Earle, who could be found Wednesday working out in a senior Zumba class. During the week, she attends the local senior center, where she enjoys bowling, dancing and trips to museums, parks and concerts. "It is a very good life."

But even she worries about what's next in her life. What happens when she can no longer drive?

"We are certainly hopeful that Georgia will afford us the things we deserve as seniors," she said.

Despite the graying trend, the Atlanta region remains slightly younger than the nation as a whole; the median age here is 34.9 versus the national figure of 36.8.  And the city of Atlanta appeared to buck the trend. The city saw only a 2 percent increase in seniors.

But regionally, the rapid growth of the senior population creates new challenges for a place that planned its growth around young people and working families.

In many instances, planners say, communities are failing to meet these needs. In Gwinnett, which saw a 74 percent increase in seniors during the decade, waiting lists are growing for transportation services, home-delivered meals and homemaking services. In Cobb, which saw a 42 percent increase, the increasing need is slamming head-on into budget shortfalls that forced the closing of two senior centers and spelled the end the county's entire senior day care program.

Officials of the Atlanta Regional Commission, while praising local efforts to serve seniors, say vast needs remain unmet. The Atlanta area simply was not built with seniors in mind, a fact that is leaving an increasing number of them isolated in their homes, unable to find transportation to the limited number of senior centers.

“These communities are not ready in terms of infrastructure,” said Cathie Berger, director of the ARC’s Area Agency on Aging.

Berger noted that seniors, who now make up 9 percent of the region’s population, are expected to be 20 percent by 2030. “Much has to be done if we want to adequately address the needs of these adults,” she said.

Community leaders, as well as the private sector and nonprofits, are finding creative solutions to help seniors in these cash-strapped times.

Cobb and Gwinnett exempt seniors from paying school taxes, which can comprise two-thirds of a person's property tax bill. Cobb has adopted special zoning to promote construction of senior living communities. Construction of senior housing represents a bright spot in an otherwise moribund real estate market.

Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett have all started programs to provide vouchers for seniors to pay for transportation. A DeKalb nonprofit called I Care Seniors recruits volunteer drivers to take seniors to medical appointments. The group helped 236 people last year make it to 1,436 appointments.

But some seniors see the luster wearing off the region. Karen Kregel moved to northeast Gwinnett 15 years ago to be closer to her kids. These days she travels 10 miles to reach a senior center. Others travel even farther. When the center limited its shuttle service, she saw people come less often.

Gwinnett, she said, was a good place for older adults 15 years ago. But services have lagged behind the growth, she said.

"Things were nice then," she said. "We felt we were wanted."

Staff writer Leon Stafford contributed to this report.

The city of Atlanta appeared to buck the trend. The city saw only a 2 percent rise in its seniors, a bump of a mere 804 people to a total of 41,339, according to census figures.

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