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THE SENIOR CLASS The number of 65+ citizens is expected to double in the next 25 years

It's called the "Elder Boom."

As baby boomers begin to enter their 60s, the number of seniors in the United States is projected to double over the next 25 years.

And Buffalo Niagara ranks as the nation's 10th "oldest" among communities with 500,000 or more people, according to the last Census.

"People tend to take this sky-is-falling approach: 'We've got all these old people. What are we going to do with them?' " said Pamela M. Krawczyk, Erie County senior services commissioner.

Senior citizens are living longer, healthier lives than ever before, but unlike in the past, they are working less than their peers did 50 years ago, according to a government report released last week.

The findings are part of a national report on America's senior citizens, called "65 in the United States: 2005." It was commissioned by the National Institute on Aging and compiled by the Census Bureau.

By 2030, almost one of five Americans -- 72 million people -- will be age 65 or older. That poses both challenges and opportunities for Western New York.

A fourth of the residents who live in communities like Cheektowaga and the Town of Tonawanda already are 60 or older, Krawczyk noted.

The county's report, called "Project 2015," estimates the county will continue to see modest growth in the number of senior citizens over the coming years. The projections were developed with the assistance of Cornell University.

Sixteen percent of county residents will be over age 65 by 2015, according to the report, and by 2030, that figure is expected to swell to more than 21 percent.

While Erie County has a relatively high percentage of senior citizens, the population's growth is tempered by the fact many people move out of Erie County when they reach retirement age.

The national Census report echoes this reality, showing that the Northeast United States continues to lose seniors at a higher rate than any other part of the country.

Seniors who choose to remain in the area are expected to continue migrating from the City of Buffalo to the suburbs, as part of a trend that stretches back decades, according to the county's report.

In talks with community leaders, Krawczyk said, she has tried to emphasize that area seniors should be viewed more as a "natural resource" than as a burden.

As echoed in the national study, seniors are in better physical shape and better educated than ever before. Many serve as volunteers, and some work.

A notable fact in the national study, however, shows that while older Americans are living longer, fewer choose to stay in the work force.

"Not too long ago, people, particularly men, worked until they were physically unable to work," said Robert Friedland, director of the Center on an Aging Society at Georgetown University. "Now, people have a period of time to which they are looking forward."

The report attributes the declining work rate among older Americans to the growth in private pensions, Social Security and Medicare benefits.

But benefit programs face problems. Private pension systems have been defaulting at an alarming rate. Many companies are abandoning pension plans that guarantee benefits based on years of service and age at retirement. Medicare, which just added a prescription drug benefit, faces insolvency in 2020, according to the trust fund that runs it, and Social Security, if left alone, is projected to go broke in 2041.

"This report tells us that we have made a lot of progress in improving the health and well-being of older Americans, but there is much left to do," said Dr. Richard J. Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, in a statement.

Many area leaders are concerned this means an older local population will only add to the burdens of government, but Krawczyk disagrees. "I always think the benefits outweigh any of the costs associated with an older population. . . They may choose not to have a paid full-time job, but that doesn't mean they're not contributing to the community."

She said this is particularly true of the baby boomer generation, which is demanding more choices as it ages, more ways to stay healthy, and more ways to continue to make a difference in the community.

Krawczyk said, "I think people are saying, 'I'm not going to settle for the bingo parlor, gray-haired, glasses stereotype.' "

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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