As Florida goes, so goes nation of aging communities

Baby boomers lead the way into an uncharted era

KILMARNOCK, Va. — More than a half-century after the baby boom, echoes shake the nation.

The first boomers are now 66, the number of people younger than 45 has declined in most states over the past decade, and the 2011 birthrate was the lowest on record, at nearly half the 1957 rate. The divide between the population needing care and the working adults who do the earning and caring worsens each year.

In a withering Rust Belt and melting Snow Belt, youngsters have fled but their childhood homes have remained, concentrating the aged as schools have emptied and hospitals have filled. But these aging outposts are only on the frontier.

“It’s the Floridaization of the U.S. By 2030, the U.S. will basically look like Florida looks now,” said Kristina Hash, an aging specialist at West Virginia University, a state with a median age of 41. In 2000, the nation had a median age of 35.

Here in Virginia’s Lancaster and Northumberland counties, where the median age is 54, and a nursing home, hospital and cemetery are neighbors, Main Street is lined with vacuum cleaner repair shops, doctors offices and antiques stores, filled, in turn, by antique humans.

Between them on nearly every block are small businesses hawking long-obsolete dial-up Internet service, installing Web browsers and showing residents how to check email in exchange for $50.

“That’s a role my son would have played,” said Augusta Sellew, a volunteer at the town museum.

This is an economy functioning in the absence of much of the working age and the young, centered on providing services for the elderly. It’s a scene equally familiar in Alcona County, Mich., where half of residents have reached retirement age and only 14 out of 100 are children, or on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where in Worcester and Talbot counties, more than 37 percent of the population is retirement age.

In at least one way, Virginia’s Northern Neck, which computer store proprietor Doug Schaefer, 58, jokes peaked in 1720, is ahead of the curve. In the years to come, this is what the majority of America will look like.

Baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, have overwhelmed the nation’s infrastructure at every stage. But old age will represent the final and longest-lasting test, with all of them between 65 and 83 by the year 2029. It is the economic story of the century, happening before glaucoma-stricken eyes.

Stealth phenomenon

“The aging-in-place phenomenon is a stealth phenomenon because you know these people are around, but in 10 years they’re going to be older,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

On Kilmarnock’s Main Street, the dog park is larger than the children’s park, and in Lee’s Diner, all 13 patrons have gray hair, while four younger waitresses serve them.

“The pace is slower here. Even if it’s an emergency, you’ve still got to wait,” said Clifford Gratz, 83.

Kristina Ramsey, 19, waits tables at a bowling alley that fills with senior bowlers on league nights, but where attempts at DJ nights and laser tag failed for lack of interest.

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