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Originally published May 18, 2011 at 10:00 PM | Page modified May 19, 2011 at 9:44 AM

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Boomers deliver rising tide of seniors

Newly released Census 2010 data show that the ranks of Washington's elder citizens are swelling and — thanks to baby boomers — the state can expect a senior-citizen tsunami for many years to come.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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From infancy, baby boomers have been a dominant demographic in America, influencing everything from the need for new schools in the 1950s to the popularity of rock music in the 1960s and '70s to present-day concerns about Medicare and Social Security.

Now, census data released Wednesday show not just that the ranks of Washington's elder citizens are swelling, but that — thanks to boomers — the state can expect a senior-citizen tsunami for years to come.

Among the findings:

• The number of Washington residents 65 and older grew 25 percent in the last decade, compared with a 14 percent increase in the state's overall population.

• The growth rate was higher among older seniors, with the number of residents 85 and older increasing nearly 40 percent.

• Steeper still was the growth of senior-citizens-to-be, reflected by a whopping 81 percent increase among those 60 to 64.

"We're on the cusp of the baby-boom generation hitting 65, so that's going to accelerate for the next 20 years or so," said Dan Murphy, strategic-planning director for the state's Aging and Disability Services Administration.

Details about age, race, household size and family relationships in Washington, gathered in the 2010 census, were included in Wednesday's data, augmenting basic population figures published in February.

With the post-World War II baby-boomer generation beginning to enter the golden years, the question could easily be asked: Where are they all going to go?

And the answer being voiced with increasing frequency: Where they already are.

"Aging in place" has become a catch phrase in social services, Murphy said. "We try to support seniors staying in their homes — or at least in their communities — for as long as possible, so people keep doing as much as they can for as long as they can, and their families and friends help provide some support."

Not only do seniors do better when they're as independent as possible, it's simply not going to be economically feasible for government to try to address the bulk of their needs. "The rate of growth in this population is so great, it would stretch our resources even in good times," Murphy said.

Georgia Skiffington, 80, knows exactly what Murphy is talking about. She's glad she's been able to stay in the West Seattle home she and her husband purchased in the 1980s, even though he died in 1992.

"I like that when I want to do something, like paint a room, I don't have to ask anyone's permission," she said. Exercise classes three days a week at the West Seattle Senior Center help keep Skiffington energized, but time has slowed her down. She uses a walker or cane, and no longer drives.

The key to being able to stay in her house is an arrangement with a longtime family friend, a man in his mid-70s who lost his wife a few months after Skiffington lost her husband. He now lives in Skiffington's spare bedroom, drives her to doctor's appointments and helps keep up the house and yard. Skiffington also has a son on Queen Anne Hill who helps with some projects.

The percentage of 65-and-older residents varies widely in Washington cities, from a high of 40.5 percent in Sequim, becoming something of a retirement mecca on the Olympic Peninsula, down to 1.8 percent in Mattawa, a Grant County town with a Hispanic population including many young families.

The state's five largest cities and their percentage of seniors (65 and older): Seattle, 10.8 percent; Spokane, 12.8 percent; Tacoma, 11.3 percent; Vancouver, 12.4 percent; and Bellevue, 13.9 percent.

Statewide, 12.3 percent of the population is 65 or older.

The state's median age, 37.3, has risen in every census since 1970, as baby boomers work their way through the population chart.

For years, experts have been predicting that aging baby boomers would present growing challenges in health care, housing and other services as they gradually become less able to care for themselves.

But Denise Klein, executive director of Senior Services of Seattle/King County, prefers to think of maturing boomers not as problems, but as assets.

"The generation that's turning 65 now are activists," she said. "They were marching for civil rights, they were protesting the Vietnam War. We see all sorts of signs that they want to be engaged."

Already, a majority of Senior Services' 3,500 volunteers are older than 65, and Klein predicts that will increase as more boomers retire, gaining time for community service.

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222

or jbroom@seattletimes.com

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