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Senior population on rise in Tri-State area

May 21, 2001

Senior population on rise in Tri-State area



By JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

Like many of her friends, Eleanor Smith lives alone.

Soon after she wakes up, she pedals at least a mile a day on her stationary bike.

She enjoys playing cards and lunching with her friends at the Western Sizzlin' Steakhouse, volunteering to help with church activities and working out in her exercise class.

Smith is 76 and one of a growing number of senior citizens in Washington County and the Tri-State area.

In the seven-county region, 76,010 people - 13 percent of the population - were 65 or older in 2000, according to Census 2000. That's a 20 percent increase over 1990 in the 65 or older population.

Of those 76,010 senior citizens in 2000, 8,409 were 85 or older, the Census reported.

That's just one of the trends confirmed by Census 2000 statistics released this past week. Other trends in the Tri-State area include more unmarried couples cohabitating and more single mothers.

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Older and living alone is OK

Smith also is part of an increasing population that lives alone. Of the 12,941 people who lived alone in Washington County in 2000, 5,530 were 65 and older, according to Census 2000.

Rich Wiscott, director of gerontology at Shippensburg University, said when people hear the number of people 65 and older is growing, their first question is, how are we going to take care of them?

It's a popular misconception that most senior citizens need to be taken care of, Wiscott said. Actually, many seniors live comfortably on their own.

Even though there are many nursing homes and assisted living centers in the region, most are relatively small and may not even be filled to capacity, Wiscott said.

They also may be accommodating seniors who live alone, but are living in a nursing home temporarily while they rehabilitate from an injury or illness, according to Michael H. Parsons, a Hagerstown Community College sociology professor.

Dolores Shipley, 71, has lived on her own for at about 15 years. The Williamsport resident says she does just fine living by herself and keeps busy cooking, cleaning, gardening, walking 10 blocks three times a day and helping out at the local senior citizen community center.

Her friend, Mary Myers, 82, said she has lived on her own for about three years now, the first time she's ever lived alone.

"I like everything about it," Myers said. She said she can do what she wants when she wants to and has "no bosses."

To maintain their independence, the women say they are conscious of maintaining their good health.

Smith, an East End resident, said in the last 16 years she's logged 10,849 miles on her stationary bike, turning the odometer over once.

And if her health ever does fail her, she knows her friends will help her.

Every morning she calls a friend to let her know Smith is OK. Smith said if she doesn't call by 9 a.m., her friend knows to call the apartment manager to check on her.

While many seniors are healthy enough to live on their own, they still require services from the community.

More transportation is needed for seniors who live in rural areas and/or are wheelchair bound, said Belinda Corbett, with the Washington County Commission on Aging. A coalition of agencies has started meeting to address that gap, she said.

More affordable housing for seniors also is needed.

When people get older, become widowed, are living on a more limited income after retirement or can't climb stairs anymore, they search for more affordable housing, often one-story housing, said Julia Burke, with the aging commission.

Sharp rise in unmarried couples

The number of unmarried couples co-habitating soared in the Tri-State area, again mirroring the nation.

The increase was modest in Washington County, where the number of unmarried partners increased from 1,625 to 3,167, compared with the rest of the Tri-State area. In Franklin County, 1990 numbers weren't available, but there were 2,739 such couples in 2000.

In Berkeley County the number of unmarried couples living together more than doubled, from 937 to 2,156 people. In Morgan County, that segment more than tripled to 392.

The trend goes back to the sexual revolution in the 1960s, according to Pastor Nathaniel Wright, of Lily of the Valley Evangel Church in Martinsburg and president of the Berkeley County Ministerial Association.

Wright said the younger generation is often living together without walking down the aisle because of the era their parents were raised in.

"Their parents have passed along a lot of things they did in the '60s," he said. Younger couples may prefer such relationships because they are comfortable with them from observing their parents' behavior.

Charles Christian, a professor of urban and social geography at the University of Maryland College Park, said economic changes also have been a factor in the trend.

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