Stanislaus County's senior population growing, living longer

jnsbranti@modbee.comJune 15, 2013 

— Move over, kids. It's time for senior citizens to take center stage.

Stanislaus County's aging baby boomers are swelling the ranks of the 50-plus crowd, and U.S. census data show record numbers of what once used to be considered old folks.

But don't expect today's seniors to be content sitting in rocking chairs, knitting. They're more likely to be living active lives — and they're certainly living longer.

In just two years, the number of county residents 65 and older grew by more than 7 percent — that's nearly 3,900 additional seniors. And one of the county's fastest-growing age segments is the 85-and-older set.

For a look at modern seniors, visit Modesto softball fields on a Thursday morning. That's when players 70 and older compete in their own Platinum Plus league. Back in 2007, there were only 55 members of that league, which is part of the Stanislaus Senior Softball Association . Now it is 90 members strong and includes about a dozen players in their 80s.

"Most of us remember how when our fathers and grandfathers were 65 years old, they just sat in front of the TV. They had worn themselves out," said Don Angle, the softball association's president. "But now, modern medications are helping people get outof their chairs and do things. We're becoming more physically active."

Angle said many older players have had knee replacements, "which allows us to stay out there playing ball and having fun."

Older women also are staying more active. Zumba exercise classes have become so popular at the Modesto Senior Citizens Center that a new session of the Latin-style rhythmic class was added recently.

"Every day, we have five or six new people coming in to exercise," said Sandy Wolfe, noting that the senior center also offers yoga, tai chi and strength training. Wolfe, one of Modesto's recreation coordinators, said the center is a busy place. "We just keep getting more and more people."

That makes sense, considering there's been a spike in the number of Stanislaus County residents hitting retirement age. The Census Bureau estimates the county had nearly 2,300 more people 65 to 69 years old last year than it did in 2010. That's a 13.4 percent jump.

About every age group over 50 has been expanding in Stanislaus County.

Fewer children in county

By contrast, population estimates show the number of children in the county declined during 2011 and 2012. The under-18 crowd shrank by nearly 1,600 kids, more than a 1 percent loss.

Demographic trends nationally and statewide are similar. American trends have shifted over the dec-ades as baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — have aged. So many people started families after World War II that the boomer generation has changed virtually every aspect of society.

During the '50s and '60s, many schools were built to educate boomers. More recently, medical facilities and retirement communities have emerged to serve them.

Consumer products, too, have evolved to suit their preferences.

Take shoes, for instance. When Steve Fox's parents opened the Shoe Box store in Modesto 27 years ago, it focused on good-fitting, comfortable shoes. But that's not enough for today's mature women.

"Women now are looking for more style, but with support for their feet," Fox explained. "She looks at life differently. She is much more active and feels younger than her mother did at the same age."

So he now stocks shoes that are comfortable and stylish, and his clientele is expanding as women age.

"We've definitely seen an uptick in our business," Fox said. "Our customer base has increased."

The client list for Community Hospice also has been rising.

"We've seen nearly a 10 percent increase per year the last five years," said Christine Ramsey, public relations manager for the hospice, which provides care to those in the final months of the life.

When Community Hospice started in Modesto in 1979, it had two volunteer nurses and a handful of patients. Now it has about 270 staff members, and last year it served 1,611 patients — most of them sen-iors.

"We do expect to care for more and more people as the population continues to age," Ramsey said.

But baby boomers are likely to stick around for quite some time because people are living longer, and they'd better be prepared.

"People are completely underestimating how much money they will need to finance aging," cautioned Elizabeth Price, president of the Stanislaus Senior Foundation, a privately funded nonprofit that provides goods and services to needy seniors. "Aging is expensive. I think we're going to have to rethink how we're going to pay for those expenses."

Long time to live after retirement

Price said many seniors may live for 30 years or more after retirement, and as they age, they may require help caring for themselves — bathing, dressing and preparing meals. "The cost of that kind of care is really expensive," Price warned. "Families provided more of that care in the olden days, but we're so disconnected now," with many adult children living far away from their aging parents.

Price said many seniors rely only on Social Security payments for income, which often isn't enough.

"The Stanislaus Senior Foundation has definitely seen an increase in the number of seniors who are falling through the cracks and need our help," she said, estimating that nearly half of the county's elder population has difficulty meeting expenses.

Price said the wave of baby boomers growing old will be like a tsunami, "and the number of Stanislaus seniors living in poverty is going to be staggering."

The U.S. Census Bureau's latest population estimates show Stanislaus County's Hispanic and Asian populations continue to grow, while the number of white and black residents decline.

Stanislaus' population overall edged up just 1.2 percent in 2012 compared with 2010. Hispanics made up most of that two-year increase, and they now account for about 43 percent of the county's nearly 522,000 residents.

The Hispanic population has been on a steady climb for decades. They comprised about 22 percent of county residents in 1990, rose to about 32 percent in 2000 and to about 42 percent in 2010.

Asian residents have increased in number, and in 2012 they comprised more than 5 percent of the population. Whites were 45.6 percent, blacks were 2.5 percent and the rest were a mix of racial groups.

The other notable population shift revealed in the latest census count was the declining number of children in Stanislaus County and throughout most of California and the United States as a whole.

The number of county residents under 18 declined by nearly 1,600 between 2010 and 2012. That 1.1 percent decline was about twice as much as the decline of children nationwide and statewide. But it is not something Stanislaus County school officials say they are worried about.

"Birth rates have been down, and that's been on our radar. We've talked about it," said Don Gatti, assistant superintendent at the county Office of Education.

Gatti said the impact of that decline varies across Stanislaus' 26 school districts. He said enrollments have been increasing in Ceres and Turlock, falling in Salida and Riverbank, and fairly stable elsewhere.

Countywide, the number of high-school-age teens in 2012 was 1,027 fewer than what it was in 2010, a 3 percent drop. The number of children under 5 fell by nearly 1 percent, while the number of those in grade school dipped only slightly.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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