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We're growing older, working longer – and costing more. And it's upending Valley life

Fresno County's population has grown by about 57,000 this decade. And it's gradually getting older.

The number of people age 60 or older increased by about 24 percent between 2010 and 2017. As of last summer, those folks numbered 166,585, or almost 17 percent of the county's overall population, according to the most recent estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. That's up from 134,263 people 60 or older in 2010, when they represented about 14 percent of the population.

A report issued in April by the Fresno-Madera Area Agency on Aging forecasts that the number of people aged 60 and older is going to keep growing, too – by almost 18,000 more just by 2020.

It's part of a nationwide trend as the baby boomer generation – people born in the post-World War II years from 1946 to 1964 – continues to reach retirement age. And they're reaching that milestone with longer life expectancies than earlier generations.

Here's just one eye-opener in the local forecast: Fresno County was estimated to have 74 centenarians, or people at least 100 years old, in 2017. By 2020, that is expected to nearly double to 141.

"America is graying. The nation’s 65-and-older population is projected to nearly double in size in coming decades, from 49 million today to 95 million people in 2060," according to a population projection report issued by the Census Bureau this year. The number of people aged 85 and older is expected to nearly triple nationwide between 2020 and 2050, to more than 18.5 million.

Cost ramifications of an aging population

As more people get old, there are ramifications for social safety net programs for seniors such as Social Security and Medicare.

Statewide, the number of people age 65 and older who receive Social Security benefits grew by an average of 27 percent, from almost 3.6 million in 2010 to more than 4.5 million in 2017. But the total paid to those beneficiaries rose at a much higher pace: more than 50 percent, from less than $4.1 billion in 2010 to more than $6.1 billion in 2017.

In Fresno County, the cost of Social Security benefits to senior citizens increased by more than 46 percent since the start of the decade, while the actual number of beneficiaries over 65 rose by 25 percent.

The Social Security Administration last month forecast that its trust funds are expected to be depleted by 2034, about the time that the tail-end of the baby boomer generation turns 70 – and at least a dozen years before the first of what's known as the millennial generation, born between 1981 and 1996, reach traditional retirement age. When that happens, the income to the programs is expected to be enough to pay about 79 percent of the benefits scheduled to be payable to beneficiaries.

"The total cost of the program is projected to exceed total annual income in 2018 for the first time since 1982," the agency reported. "As a result, asset reserves are expected to decline during 2018. Social Security's cost has exceeded its non-interest income since 2010."

Not only are the aging baby boomers creating a surge in disbursements from Social Security, they are fueling a growing demand for health care and social services aimed at senior citizens. Additionally, many are also working beyond the traditional retirement age of 65 – and not simply because they're healthier, or more active, or that they enjoy their careers too much to walk into the sunset.

"The word 'retirement' may be retired. More people are working past retirement age out of need, because they can't afford to retire," said Linda Descoteaux, administrative manager for the Fresno-Madera Area Agency on Aging. "Traditional retirement plans are no more in most cases. If you don't have a 401(k) or an (individual retirement account), then you're still going to be working."

And that's having ripple effects throughout the overall economy, too. As people hold onto their jobs longer, it can result in fewer opportunities for younger workers to move up the ranks, Descoteaux said.

A rising tide of retirees

Across the age spectrum in Fresno County, the 65-to-69 crowd saw the greatest change of any age group between from 2010 to 2017, increasing by 11,201 people, the Census Bureau reported. During the same eight-year span, the largest single decrease in population came among the late teens, ages 15 to 19, which fell by nearly 8,800.

It reflects what the Census Bureau also forecasts nationwide over the coming decades.

"The aging of baby boomers means that within just a couple decades, older people are projected to outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history," said U.S. Census Bureau demographer Jonathan Vespa. "By 2035, there will be 78 million people 65 years and older, compared to 76.4 million under the age of 18."

As people work beyond age 65, more of the youngest senior citizens are engaged more in their workplace than in more traditional senior pursuits, including participating in programs at senior centers. "We're seeing lighter attendance for our congregant meal sites, like a community center or senior center," Descoteaux said. "We mainly see the oldest of the old. The younger ones are still working and they're not coming to lunch at a center."

Still, the demand for other services for seniors outpaces the ability of many agencies like Descoteaux's to keep up. "In general, we're seeing waiting lists for services for the most frail," Descoteaux said. Those include home-delivered meals, case-management programs to help seniors navigate the Medicare and Medi-Cal systems, and referrals for services to keep older people in their homes longer rather than moving into nursing homes.

As Fresno County's population becomes more top-heavy at the oldest ranges, it drives up the median age of the overall countywide population. In 2010, the median age – the midpoint at which half of residents are older and half are younger – was 30.7 years. That rose to 32.3 years by mid-2017, according to the Census Bureau.

Fresno is far from the "grayest" of California's counties, however. In fact, it's effectively one of the youngest. Of the state's 58 counties, only six have a lower median age than Fresno. Another 23 counties – mostly rural counties in northern California – have populations for which the median age is at least 40 years old.

Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319; Twitter: @TimSheehanNews.

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