Growth of elderly population led by 85-plus segment Most old people reportedly healthy

November 10, 1992|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

The United States' elderly population is aging as a group, with the frail, 85-plus segment growing fastest, says a U.S. Census Bureau report being released today.

However, contrary to the stereotype of the doddering elderly, most of the nation's 31 million old people enjoy good health and a decent standard of living, the report says.

It isn't until Americans reach their mid-80s that most are either in nursing homes or need help with everyday activities, the study shows.

"We tend to treat the elderly as if they were a homogeneous population, but they are really very different," says Cynthia Taeuber, author of "Sixty-Five Plus in America."

The 85-plus population -- dubbed the "oldest old" -- grew by almost 38 percent during the 1980s to 3 million. That group is expected to grow by more than half this decade to 4.6 million in the year 2000.

"Even if there are no medical advances, the 'oldest old' population would grow very fast, and that will have a lot of impact on both families and government budgets," Ms. Taeuber says.

At least three of 10 Americans now living will mark their 85th birthdays, the Census Bureau says. Women outnumber men by 2 to 1 among the "oldest old."

Maryland's half-million elderly follow the national pattern. The 85-plus group grew by 42 percent during the 1980s to more than 46,000. The elderly population increased by 31 percent overall.

The United States' elderly population is expected to grow most dramatically in the years 2010 to 2030. That is when the baby boomers -- those born from 1946 to 1964 -- will move into old age.

Much has been made of the travails of the so-called "sandwich generation" -- baby boomers faced with caring for their children and their parents simultaneously.

But Ms. Taeuber says a "much bigger issue" is the growing number of people in their 50s to early 70s -- what she calls the "young old" -- faced with taking care of the "oldest old." Nearly 36,000 people in the United States were 100 years or older in 1990.

The report shows significant differences within the country's elderly population. Only about 2 percent of persons aged 65 to 74 are in nursing homes. That increases to 7 percent for those 75 to 84 and soars to 23 percent for the "oldest old."

Likewise, three of four persons 65 to 74 consider their health to be good or excellent.

About 12 percent of the country's elderly were poor in 1990. In Maryland, some 10.5 percent of the elderly were poor in 1990.

"Social Security makes a big difference. Without it, 47 percent of today's elderly would be poor," Ms. Taeuber says.

Elderly blacks are three times as likely as elderly whites to be poor. Life expectancy in the United States also varies greatly by race and gender -- 79 years for white females, 74 for black females, 73 for white males and 65 for black males.

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