Local future looks gray

Horizon survey takes pulse of aging population

1,200 questioned in study

Planning needed to maintain health, well-being of elders

Howard County

May 02, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's seniors are healthy, wealthy and wise for the most part, and their numbers will grow twice as fast as Maryland's senior population, according to a groundbreaking study financed by the Horizon Foundation.

This senior profile, gleaned from a survey of 1,200 people throughout Howard, will be vital in drafting what County Executive James N. Robey called yesterday a "road map" to help the county's burgeoning over-60 population stay in their homes and remain as well off as they are today.

According to the study, 98 percent of the county's seniors 60 and over have health insurance; two-thirds are very satisfied with their lives; 87 percent own their own homes and two-thirds have incomes over $30,000 a year.

Two-thirds of those surveyed were seniors - for the purpose of this study, those 60 and over. To help look into the future, one-third of those surveyed were 40 to 60 years of age, the next generation of seniors.

Forty-five percent of those 60 or over have college degrees. By comparison, 75 percent of the 40-60 age group are college educated.

The survey identified some problems on the horizon, officials said.

Robey noted, for example, that women on average outlive men by six years, and often don't have the support or income that men do as they age. "It's more of an issue for women than for men," he said.

A majority of Howard County women over 60 - 69 percent - are widowed, divorced, separated or never married, compared with only 15 percent of men.

In addition, although most seniors are happy with their lives, depression, hypertension, heart disease and arthritis are all significant health problems.

The study found that 90 percent of those over 60 drive their own vehicles. But among the minority who don't drive, some have trouble getting around using Howard's expanding but minimal public transportation system.

Phyllis Madachy, director of the county's Office on Aging, said one-third of the over-60 group surveyed have trouble with basic daily activities such as walking, preparing meals, doing laundry, transportation or getting dressed. And 24 percent spend more than $100 out of pocket for prescription drugs each month, she said.

On another front, Madachy said the county also has to be cognizant that 16 percent of seniors are minorities, and "it's critical to understand cultural differences," in order to help them achieve the same goals.

The group at a news conference in Ellicott City yesterday didn't have to look far to understand the coming challenge, said Robey, who is 60. The county's population of seniors is predicted by state planners to increase 169 percent by 2020, when about 70,000 older residents are expected to live in the county.

"We're the only county in Maryland that has a handle on the adult population," said Richard Krieg, CEO and president of the foundation, which contributed $85,000 to finance the report.

Horizon, Howard's largest foundation, was created as a byproduct of the merger between Howard County General and Johns Hopkins Hospital. It concentrates on health-related issues.

The study, conducted by a Wheaton consulting firm called Research, Evaluation, Development and Analysis, produced information that the county Office On Aging can use for years to come in planning. The survey covered all four regions of the county - the U.S. 1 corridor, western county, Columbia and Ellicott City.

Krieg said the county is forging partnerships with the University of Maryland and the Johns Hopkins University, "so we don't reach a point 10 years down the road when we'll be playing catch-up."

The county will need a variety of partnerships with private groups to deal with such a large demographic change, Krieg said.

Manus O'Donnell, director of the county's Department of Citizens Services, which supervises services for the aging, said part of keeping seniors healthy and happy may involve staying active longer in life, either by remaining in the work force or by volunteering.

"Seniors who remain active tend to remain more vital," O'Donnell said, noting that staying vital will help them remain safe at home and out of institutions such as nursing homes.

Krieg said that more imaginative activities, such as working in day care or learning weight-training from high-school-age trainers, might also help keep seniors vital.

For seniors who have trouble performing daily tasks, county and foundation programs could perhaps teach people to "do routine tasks in a different way."

"The thing to look at is how do we prepare the 40-to-60-year-old age group for a future they don't understand yet?" Madachy said.

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