Coming of Age Graying of the Suburbs
Brave New Boomers
Sunday, September 16, 2007
The first of two articles
Marshall Mundy was retired from his teaching job barely a week when he got bored with "the judge shows" on TV, found a part-time job and started lifting weights at the new community center near Glenwood. The 59-year-old was there recently, bench pressing during the free period for seniors, when he spotted one of his buddies across the room. "How's your blood pressure?" he called out.
Howard County has started preparing for people such as Mundy. The fitness room in its $14 million community center has been outfitted with weight machines that have features to aid baby boomers as they age, such as hydraulics to lessen pressure on stiff joints and recumbent cycles with removable seats for wheelchairs.
With the first wave of the 80 million baby boomers headed toward retirement, Washington's suburbs are planning for what Fairfax County Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) calls the "silver tsunami" -- when the percentage of those 65 and older in many suburban counties is expected to double over the next 20 years. The population shift mirrors what is happening nationally and will be so significant, lawmakers and experts say, that it will affect every aspect of municipal government, including transportation, health services and public safety.
Suburban communities traditionally built around the needs of young families with small children are beginning to grapple with how they will meet the needs of aging residents and whether to shift priorities from schools and parks to transit, health care and other services.
"The suburbs used to be 'Ozzie and Harriet' Land -- places with young families raising kids," said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution who has been studying the shift. "Now those same households are empty nesters, aging boomers and seniors, making those places much grayer than they've ever been before."
Needs will vary widely for this generation of active boomers, many of whom are delaying retirement. But local governments aren't waiting. Receipts at libraries in Fairfax are printed in type that's a quarter-inch tall to make them easier to read. And for older boomers with mobility issues, such basic amenities as curbside trash pickup may need to be reexamined, experts say.
Changes proposed now could fundamentally change the landscape and culture of suburbia in coming years. Drivers, one in four of whom will be seniors in 2029, may find their way aided by brightly colored road signs with bold lettering. Seniors will probably gather in activity centers that look more like cafes than the depressing municipal structures of years past. Home buyers are likely to see fewer multistory McMansions and more wheelchair-friendly one-story dwellings with wide doorways and roll-in showers.
The number of residents in the region 65 and older will grow from 446,000 in 2000 to 1.2 million in 2030, or from 9 percent to 14.5 percent of the population, according to Frey's analysis of U.S. Census data. In contrast, the percentage of children ages 14 and younger will stay steady, at about 21 percent.
"The part that's particularly compelling is the almost overwhelming nature of this: It's coming, and it's coming soon," said Fairfax Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence).
In recent months, Fairfax, Montgomery and Arlington counties have launched large-scale efforts to plan for the coming surge. Montgomery is mulling a Cabinet-level "senior czar" to oversee expansion. Arlington finished its elder study in August, which included proposals for such trendy services as a concierge for apartment buildings with a lot of retirees.
Next month, the Fairfax Board of Supervisors will release its "50+ Action Plan," making the county one of the first jurisdictions to present a road map for managing the population change. Among expected recommendations: a call-in transit information center, high-tech health monitoring in the county's senior housing, increased efforts to involve boomer volunteers in the community, more English-language classes for immigrant seniors and help for caregivers.