Fairfax Sharpens Focus on Retirees

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 4, 2006

Fairfax County leaders say they have known for a few years that there is a demographic change to which they haven't given enough consideration: the growing population of retirees.

Now the Board of Supervisors is moving from contemplation to action with a committee formed expressly to address the needs of the elderly.

"We need to take a step back and look at our county and see whether or not it is aging-friendly," said Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), who has taken a special interest in the aging community. "If not, we need to set about doing what we can to make it that way."

At a recent kickoff meeting led by Kauffman, the Committee on Aging set an 18-month goal to devise a blueprint for services the county should provide, including transportation, recreation and health care.

"I don't believe many of the county agencies have taken the time" to consider what they need to do to adjust from their historic focus on youth, Kauffman said.

Demographically, the county increasingly is headed toward retirement. The number of residents over 65 is expected to be 11.6 percent of the population by 2020. Six years ago, the same age group made up about 7.9 percent of the population, according to county data.

But a suburb that has flourished as a car-dependent bedroom community for young Washington commuters isn't necessarily equipped for the elderly, many of whom may need a vast network of buses near their homes.

Two-thirds of county spending is geared toward serving residents 19 and younger, and less than 2 percent is dedicated to services for seniors, Kauffman said. Supervisors must find a way to make wise cuts in the budget to provide for the county's aging population.

With more retirees wanting to stay in the county rather than relocate, their demand for services is becoming more acute.

"All of a sudden, everybody's talking about this, from governments to county boards," said Michael O'Neal, a housing and transportation expert with the AARP, who spoke at last week's meeting. He said the question that needs to be answered is: "How do we accommodate people already living somewhere, who've made investments in a place?"

One need the committee will focus on is housing, to make it more accessible for those who find stairs challenging. Some retirees may need assisted-living arrangements but may not be able to afford market rates.

The county's first mixed-income assisted-living complex had a groundbreaking recently. It will accommodate 109 residents.

The committee's challenge will be to assess what the need will be in the future, as well as other needs that will require county help.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company