St. Petersburg Times Online
Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Population of elderly is growing and aging

At 52.6 years, Citrus County has the state's second highest median age. With slower growth among the younger set, the older ranks continue growing.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001

At 52.6 years, Citrus County has the state's second highest median age. With slower growth among the younger set, the older ranks continue growing.

Citrus County is old and getting older.

The median age is 52.6, up 3.5 percent from where it stood just one decade ago, according to new census figures. The median is the middle point, so half the Citrus population is older than 52.6 and half is younger.

Only one Florida county, Charlotte, has a greater median age. In 1990, Citrus had the fourth greatest median age in the state.

Citrus County's profile didn't surprise Cathy Pearson.

"I can tell from the business alone that the number of elderly is up, because we are full," said Pearson, executive director at Nature Coast Lodge, a 77-bed assisted living facility in Lecanto.

Nature Coast is one of several assisted living facilities that opened in recent years; the county's ninth nursing home, a 120-bed facility in Citrus Hills, just began accepting residents.

But those aren't the only places where continued growth of the elder population is evident.

Check out the public transit system, now creaking along at 97 percent capacity. Or the hospitals, where business, especially from Medicare patients, steadily climbs. Or the Citrus County Sheriff's Office, where one staffer's primary job is to protect the elderly from scams and swindles.

For that matter, just look next door.

Almost half of Citrus County's 52,000-plus households include at least one member who is age 65 or older, the new census figures showed.

Meanwhile, the average household size dipped almost 17 percent during the 1990s, from 2.64 to 2.20. That stands to reason: Seniors are unlikely to have minor children living at home.

Number crunching

Earlier census data, released in March, showed the Citrus population rose 26 percent during the 1990s, that the growth of people 18 and older increased 27 percent, and that the number of people age 17 and younger increased 24 percent.

This new information is more detailed, showing which age groups grew or shrank during the 1990s.

For example, the number of people age 4 and younger increased less than 1 percent during the decade, the figures showed. Meanwhile, the number of people age 85 and older grew a whopping 102 percent, from 1,850 to 3,738.

The latter statistic made perfect sense to Nancy Hall, administrator at a new nursing home, Woodland Terrace of Citrus County.

"People are living longer. Modern medicine," Hall said. "When I first started in this business (20 years ago) the average resident was a 70-year-old woman . . . today it's a 90-year-old female."

So, if Citrus is getting older, where are all the old people living?

Census tract information is not yet available. But the government did provide statistics for general places.

In Sugarmill Woods, for example, the median age increased from 62.1 to 65 during the 1990s. In Inverness, the age creeped up from 52.9 to 54.6.

Debbie Kanaris has a unique vantage point from which to observe this particular disparity. Her family owns restaurants on both sides of the county -- Emily's in Homosassa and the Town House in Inverness.

"I have a standing joke," Mrs. Kanaris said. At Emily's people are 65 years old. At the Town House, people are 65 years young.

In other words, the Emily's crowd is consistently older and prefers standard, homestyle fare. The Inverness clientele includes many more young people, leading the staff to add cheese sticks, chicken wings and other pub grub to the menu in hopes of attracting diners.

Mrs. Kanaris said Citrus should get younger in the coming years.

"As soon as the (Suncoast) Parkway opens and the families can commute," she said. That road, now partly open, eventually will stop at U.S. 98 at the Citrus-Hernando border; a Citrus extension is possible.

Beverly Hills actually got younger during the 1990s, with the median age decreasing from 71 to 67.8. Experts explain this by noting that small homes once populated by aging Northern retirees increasing are being bought, or rented, by younger families.

Consider: In 1990, Beverly Hills had only 90 children age 4 and younger. By 2000, that number had grown to 290.

Bucking the trend

This 1990s aging experience wasn't common along the North Suncoast. For that matter, it was a bit of a departure for Citrus.

Hernando County's median age pretty much stayed the same, increasing a fraction during the 1990s from 49.4 to 49.5. Census figures showed that the number of people age 19 and younger grew at about the same rate as the number of people age 65 and older.

In Pasco, the median actually decreased from 47.9 to 44.9. That was the largest drop in all Florida during the decade. Growth of people age 19 and younger was up 37 percent compared with just a 2 percent increase in the 65-plus set.

In Citrus, the younger and older sets both grew. The ranks of the older folks just grew more.

"It just seems to me that there are a lot of people in their 50s, like myself, coming into this area and starting a new life," said Bob Crowley, who left Massachusetts for Citrus Hills in 1991 and now owns an advertising agency here.

Crowley said the census figures surprised him somewhat. But the statistics don't hurt his quality of life or hinder his ability to help clients, such as Citrus Memorial Hospital and the Tourist Development Council.

"The charm of this county is the fact that we have all ages. This is not Orlando. This is not Tampa. This is not Miami Beach. It's unique," Crowley said.

That unique charm attracted Helen Spivey here several decades ago. She and her husband tired of the sprawl they witnessed in Pinellas County and set out for a better quality of life.

"We're rural and yet we are close to the amenities of a large city, without being burdened" by big-city troubles.

Like Mrs. Kanaris, Helen Spivey considers the Suncoast Parkway a growth engine for younger people.

"If the Suncoast Parkway goes through, you probably will see some young (people) who don't mind driving long distances and paying huge tolls," said Spivey, a parkway critic and former state representative.

In Citrus, the increased median age bucked a trend, albeit a short-lived one: The 1990 level, 50.8, actually was down from the 1980 median of 52.2.

Looking ahead

The new census figures mean different things to different people. For Anne Westbrook, the numbers carry a clear message: Now is the time to plan.

Westbrook directs the county's division of support services. She and her staff direct more than $1-million in state and federal money designed to help older folks. The programs range from congregate dining to assistance with energy bills to respite care for the caregivers of Alzheimer's patients.

"I think this is the time to realize that it (the aging of Citrus County) is happening and we have to start planning immediately for our future because the growth of the elderly will not decrease," Westbrook said. She said state and federal funds have not kept pace with growth and demand for services.

"As people live longer, there are a myriad of issues that service providers need to address," she said.

Might the median age decrease when the 2010 census figures are released? Perhaps. But consider this: The number of people age 20 to 24 decreased 3.2 percent during the 1990s, while the number of people age 25 to 34 decreased 7.6 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of people age 55 to 59 increased 53 percent.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.