OKLAHOMA'S oldest population booming

Friday, May 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

EUFAULA, Okla. (AP) _ The nursing homes stay filled. Fewer seniors can make the trip to the senior center. And Barbara White has trouble finding enough drivers to get hot meals to the elderly stuck in their houses.

It's no surprise in Eufaula that census figures released Friday show Oklahoma's very oldest population was one of its fastest-growing in the 1990s.

The 85-and-older population surged 25 percent, a rate outpaced only by baby boomers between the ages of 45 and 54, the 2000 census found. The biggest growth came in rural counties where senior services often are a long drive away, leaving many elderly stranded at home.

``Once they're homebound, it's hard to find people to come in and help them,'' said White, who manages the senior center in this lakeside retirement town. ``A lot of them fall in the cracks.''

The median age in Oklahoma climbed from 33.2 in 1990 to 35.5 in 2000, a whisper above the nation's median age of 35.3 years. The number of Oklahomans older than 65 grew 7.5 percent to 455,950.

The 57,175 Oklahomans age 85 and older surprised state officials, who had expected about half the growth rate in that age group.

Carey Garland, deputy director for the state Department of Human Service's Aging Services division, attributed the growth to healthier lifestyles that mean Oklahomans are living longer.

``They are generally healthy until they become ill or have an accident,'' he said, ``and then their service needs are quite extreme.''

The state is trying to bolster services for the elderly. Programs for low-income residents help provide everything from bathing assistance to adult day care. There's a waiting list for people wanting homebound services as an alternative to nursing home care.

Daily meals, such as the lunch shared on the long tables at the Eufaula senior center, are available to provide interaction for more active seniors, he said.

``This population of 85 or older are frequently widowed and live alone,'' Garland said. ``A big contributing factor to illness in later years is that isolation.''

Still, the demand for services is greater than what the agency can provide, he said. It's asking for $12 million in new state money to expand such programs.

A recent survey found a lack of flexible, affordable transportation prevents many older Oklahomans in rural areas from going places, such as to the doctor or to church.

In Eufaula, where the over-85 crowd more than doubled to 133 residents, transportation for the elderly isn't a problem. The town dispatches three buses like taxis when residents need to go to the grocery store or to the doctor. A trip costs 50 cents.

White worries about elderly living in outlying areas. The daily demand for delivered hot meals has grown by 20 since a year ago, and the declining attendance at the senior center suggests more elderly are staying at home or going into nursing homes, she said.

But White, a slim 66-year-old ex-trucker, is quick to point out what she once yelled into a microphone at the senior center: ``We're old, but we're not dead!''

Many of the town's seniors go to dances five nights a week, fish on Lake Eufaula and dig in their gardens. She once had to chide two former school teachers who got in a spitball fight at the center.

Many of Eufaula's oldest residents first came to the community for the lake activities it offered in their younger retirement years. The town's 65-and-older population continued to grow in the past decade, even as its under-35 population fell.

The growth has brought new demands. Stan Kelley, Eufaula's community development director, notes that nursing homes have waiting lists and assisted living housing is badly needed.

But Eufaula is content to keep growing its graying population, he said. Most of the retirees come with money and spend it in the little shops that fill the old brick buildings downtown.

The town's coffers have grown with the median age, which is now 47.

``They've got the money to spend,'' Kelley said. ``That 18-year-old isn't going to spend it.''