Balto. County aging rapidly Elderly population opens opportunities, puts strain on services

'God's waiting room'

Senior demographics to outstrip growth in number of children

June 09, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County is feeling its age -- and the impact of its aged.

The county, which grew rapidly in the postwar urban flight, has Maryland's largest population of seniors -- a distinction that has led some to dub it "God's waiting room."

And the trend will only accelerate.

Although the number of seniors and school-age children is roughly equal now, by 2020, seniors will outnumber children by 204,000 to 115,000.

Such changes have made the county a model of sorts for the nation's elderly-care industry. From Glen Arm to Catonsville, the landscape is dotted with sprawling senior communities, including the 2,500-resident Charlestown, billed as the largest in the nation. And contrary to popular images of a rush to the Sun Belt, most seniors have remained in Dundalk, Towson and other neighborhoods; many even return from southern cities as they age.

But the graying of Baltimore County worries some.

The county, pressed for money, already is cutting some programs for seniors.

In coming years, the burgeoning seniors are likely to demand more services, even as their relatively stable incomes and eligibility for tax credits hamstring county revenue growth -- and the respected public schools.

"It still will be a large school system. But with the increased portion of seniors, are they going to be committed to schools?" says Dunbar Brooks, a school board member and a senior demographer with the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, a regional planning group.

Today, the county's seniors are concentrated in neighborhoods around the Beltway, where suburbia beckoned young families in the 1940s and 1950s.

"They came to Baltimore County because that was where the work was," says Charles L. Fisher Jr., director of the county Department of Aging. "At one time, they were the county work force."

The American Dream

Frank Albanese, 74, and his wife, Mildred, 67, are like many other longtime residents. They have lived in their Dundalk rowhouse ,, for 38 years, raising three sons and a daughter at a time when Ozzie and Harriet were role models for the nation.

The search for a job actually brought Frank Albanese to Baltimore. The West Virginia native had returned home after serving under Gen. George S. Patton in World War II, but was unable to find work.

Once he landed a position as an insulator inspector for Locke Insulators Inc., his next step was finding a home for his growing family. Helped by a VA loan, the Albaneses were able to buy a piece of the American Dream -- a new house in the suburbs for about $7,000.

When they moved to the three-bedroom brick rowhouse surrounded by fields, they were escaping the congestion of the city. Now, the surrounding land is blanketed with homes that cost about $80,000, and Dundalk has developed many urban problems.

The couple is staying put, however, enjoying a paid-off mortgage and the familiarity of nearby amenities.

'Good location'

"It's a good location -- near Eastpoint Mall, near my church," says Frank Albanese, who, in his retirement, teaches line dancing at the popular Ateaze Senior Center. "We've got good neighbors. Everyone just keeps up their own house."

The couple's children and nine grandchildren, who live in the area, visit often. And the tidy Dundalk home is filled with family photos; knickknacks, including more than a dozen Indian figurines; and memories of Boy Scout meetings and four bikes constantly on the go.

One son, Joseph, and his wife, Kathy, live next door. "A lot of

people say we're crazy," laughed Kathy Albanese, who grew up a few streets away. "But my in-laws are saints."

The Albaneses once considered moving to Florida; they even bought some land there. They later decided against the move and sold the land.

Aging in place

"Most elderly like to age in place," says Carol De Vita, a senior research demographer for the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau. "Some of the Sun Belts -- Florida and Arizona -- are retirement magnets, but the elderly have the lowest rates of moving. Only 6 percent moves in any given year."

With the nation's postwar babies turning 50 at a rate of one every 7.6 seconds, they will start to usher in a senior boom by 2011, according to the Alliance for Aging Research, based in Washington.

Baltimore County's 136,000 seniors account for almost 20 percent of its residents. The newer suburbs of Harford, Carroll and Howard have 26,000 or fewer residents age 60 and over; Anne Arundel has about 60,000. Baltimore City has about 119,000 seniors.

In just eight years, Baltimore County's sunset population is expected to reach 147,000, with the fastest-growing group of seniors being the "oldest old," those 85 and over. By 2020, seniors are predicted to account for 29 percent of the county's population.

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