Brave New Boomers
Area Officials Plan for a Generation That Won't Call Itself Old And Opts to Stay Put Far From Transit and Health Services

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

There, as elsewhere, officials are thinking about how they're going to serve this new generation of retirees. Boomers -- who are "basically being dragged kicking and screaming into senior citizen status," as Kauffman, chairman of the board's aging committee, put it -- are far more affluent and expected to be more active.

The newest senior center in Springfield, for example, is going to be named the Kingstowne Center for Active Adults, after a consultant panel of boomers told the county it loathed the term "seniors" and the very idea of a "senior center." The center will have evening and weekend hours to attract those who still work. A billiard table will be strategically placed in the front of the new building to lure men, who are more likely than women to be wary of hanging out at such a place.

Transportation Is a Key Issue

Falls Church retiree Rita Turner recently decided she was too old to drive, so she sold her Ford Escort to a neighbor. She didn't even watch as he drove it up the street and out of her life.

But now, a few months later, not a day goes by that she doesn't miss it. Her schedule is at the mercy of a hodgepodge of volunteer drivers from Fairfax County's office on aging and her friends. Family members live far away. The bus stop is too far for her arthritic knees.

"I call it 'Rita's Folly,' " Turner said. "I never should have done it . . . I used to go, go, go, and now I can't get out when I want to."

Her sense of feeling trapped at home may become a common emotion among her peers, as more of the region's seniors age in neighborhoods that are far from convenient transportation hubs.

The graying of the suburbs has to do with the way the region was settled, experts say. After World War II, the first generation of suburb dwellers left homes in the District to raise families in greener climes such as Arlington and Bethesda. Then the parents stayed. As housing prices rose, young families moved farther out to afford their dream homes. Thus, the region is aging in rings farther and farther from the city center.

A demographic map of Montgomery shows the shift in clear terms: In 2000, when people older than 65 composed about 10 percent of the population, most were clustered near the Beltway. Two decades from now, the projected 188,000 seniors -- representing more than 16 percent of the county's population -- will be scattered as far as Germantown and Clarksburg.

Meanwhile, the percentage of seniors in the District will grow more slowly. Frey said he expects that some empty nesters will want the third act of their lives to be in the city's urban core, but it's hard to know how many.

"With the next generation, you'll see the elder population farther out," said Elizabeth Boehner, director of Montgomery's area agency on aging. "It's aging in place. It's a well-worn phrase, but that's exactly what they're doing."

Montgomery officials said having their clients spread over 495 square miles is beginning to strain the system, and it will become increasingly more difficult and expensive as traffic worsens. A Meals on Wheels provider in Gaithersburg recently went out of business, and the county hired a company to deliver the $4 meals to eight people -- at a cost of $25 a person.

Montgomery, which has the region's largest suburban bus system, called Ride On, is trying to entice more seniors to use its buses by letting them ride free starting in January. It is also adding display and voice machines that will flash and announce stops. Fairfax and Montgomery recently assessed their bus stops to see which ones need ramps and other upgrades -- at costs of $2.5 million and $11 million, respectively.

Transit options -- including discount taxi vouchers, ride-sharing programs and transit training -- must be expanded in coming years, experts say. Otherwise, those who have to give up their car keys face becoming "prisoners in their own homes," Kauffman says.

Without her car, Turner, who is "over 70," gets by with her network of volunteers and the occasional discount taxi voucher, which is a stretch on her fixed income. She's stockpiling supplies for the first time since she survived the Battle of Britain, growing up as a young girl in Bristol, England.

"I was running low on toilet paper the other day, and I was getting desperate!" she said, curled up on the sofa of her modest apartment, where the walls are painted a royal purple and a pillow on the chair says "The Queen is Resting."

She has a cadre of neighbors in her apartment building who call her "the Queen Mum" and check on her if her newspaper sits uncollected on the doorstep. She has no problem wandering the halls at 11 p.m., knocking on doors to ask for someone to pry open the clasp of her necklace.

"I don't mind asking that, but I'd never knock on the door and say, 'Would you run to the store and get me a quart of milk?' Never ever. It's just too much trouble," she said. "It's kind of depressing to know you're stuck and there's no out."

Smart Growth or 'Gray Ghetto'?

When Sandy Stern lost her husband after a long illness, the 57-year-old retiree dreamed of moving to a cabin in the woods. Instead, she bought the next best thing: a home in the Villas at Cattail Creek, an age-restricted community on a golf course in the western part of Howard, amid rolling green fields and horse farms.

Her gated community is a cozy group of 93 homes with brick facades and Palladian windows, where neighbors check on neighbors. Stern has started a Wednesday afternoon craft group at its community center.

But the nearest decent grocery store is 15 minutes away by car. And it's far from county bus service.

"It would be hard to live here if you didn't drive," she said.

In recent years, age-restricted communities for the active, 55-plus age group -- with golf courses, clubhouses, swimming pools and other amenities -- have proliferated in farther-flung locales such as Howard and Prince William counties, put up by developers drawn by cheaper land.

Smart-growth advocates have criticized these developments as "gray ghettos" -- which may be charming settings for active older adults who are still driving but are far from doctor's offices and other needs.

Architect Ronald A. Altoon scoffs at what he called "Camp Retirement."

"Whenever people build what I'm going to label 'elderly housing,' you really need to call it 'elderly storage,' " he said. "It's placing older people out of the way and giving them a nice park to walk through and a social center to learn to dance in. It's allowing people to idle till they die. . . . Why give all that wisdom away? They should be integrated into the community, where they can teach their grandchildren -- and your grandchildren."

Howard, which changed its zoning laws to attract more age-restricted communities a few years ago, now has 28 such communities, with 3,767 units either completed or in the pipeline. However, most developers assume their buyers will still be driving; few provide shuttle services. The county is often left scrambling to shift bus lines to accommodate the new residents, said Carl Balser, transportation chief for the county's department of planning and zoning.

Balser said another issue is a need for sidewalk connections. "The county has evolved from a very rural community into one that is very suburban. . . . As more of these facilities come into place and we have more able-bodied seniors, these folks don't want to stay in their apartments. They want to go to restaurants and other activities."

The county recently added a stretch of sidewalk along Snowden River Parkway so residents of a new senior complex could walk to the nearby Krispy Kreme.

One way to stave off isolation is to build more housing in pedestrian-friendly communities or near a Metro station, legislators and planners say.

Although senior transit use is declining nationwide, a 2006 study by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission showed that 18 percent of seniors living in walkable areas such as Arlington, Reston or the region's historic towns had used public transportation in the previous week, compared with 7 percent of those in the suburbs and 2 percent in the exurbs.

Arlington has won praise for putting large-scale retail and residential development near Metro stations. Fairfax County recently approved 375 units of senior housing for the massive MetroWest, a development of 2,250 homes, offices and retail space at the Vienna Metro station.

Stern said that one reason she found the age-restricted community in Howard appealing is that the homes were built with features for her age group.

In her home, for example, the master bedroom is on the first floor, a layout targeted for those who may one day have trouble climbing stairs. Proponents of universal design -- the theory that products should be usable for anyone regardless of age or disability -- call today's newer homes with curving staircases and slippery marble bathrooms "Peter Pan houses": perfect if you never plan on growing old.

"Baby boomers are the most optimistic, the most stubborn and the most in denial of any age group. . . . They're convinced, 'I'm never going to grow old. . . . I'm going to be as active at 75 as I was at 45.' That's the boomer attitude," said Leon Harper, a former housing specialist for AARP who now consults on universal design.

Harper says developers should start thinking about building houses with roll-in showers, wider doorways and elevators.

Howard requires that universal design be used for its 55-and-older communities. Fairfax is set to approve a measure soon requiring it for its affordable apartments and is considering drawing up guidelines for developers of all new homes.

Jurisdictions are also hiring retrofit specialists and contemplating programs to teach seniors how to modify their homes so they can continue to live in them -- the preference of 89 percent of seniors surveyed by the AARP last year. "They all tell us they want to stay in their homes as long as possible," said Elinor Ginzler, director of livable communities for AARP

Hard for Some to Slow Down

Recently, Woodbridge resident Catherine Herald, 56, sat down over lunch with her mother, Margaret Dunn, 81, and brought up a familiar concern: how it's hard for her mother to admit that she needs to slow down.

It's the kind of topic usually discussed at the kitchen table. But these two were lunching at the senior center in Woodbridge, which they both attend.

Because people are living longer, Prince William -- which had the third-fastest-growing population of those 65 and over in the country, according to the Brookings study -- is experiencing a new phenomenon: two generations of a family using its services, said Courtney Tierney, director of the county's agency on aging.

Across the region, jurisdictions are struggling to attract younger boomers, many of whom won't need their help for years, while expanding some services for older residents. Officials say programs that provide personal care or home cleaning have long waiting lists, for example, and are going to be further squeezed in years to come. In Maryland, for example, more than 2,200 people are on a waiting list for help from its Senior Care program, which provides medical and other services for frail, low-income seniors.

Herald's mother is still energetic, Herald said, but she fell in the bathtub recently. Although she now makes sure to bathe only when her husband is home, she has refused her daughters' offers to install grab bars.

"I got her a handicapped sticker for her car the other day, and she had a fit," Herald confided.

Dunn ignored her, jumping up to demonstrate how vigorous she is by touching her toes.

"They fuss at me; they want me to be handicapped," Dunn said. "I'm old in age but not in years. . . . I bowl twice a week, dance and do yoga."

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