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The Takeaway: Appalachia's Rapidly Rising Aging Population

Aging In Appalachia: It's not like older people across America aren't struggling-times are tough for retirees (and just about every other age group) these days. But in parts of the country that have traditionally lagged behind the rest of the U.S. in economic prosperity-like Appalachia- the situation is looking particularly grim. Like almost everywhere else, the number of older adults is increasing in Appalachia (the region that stretches between southern New York and northern Mississippi and encompasses parts of 13 states, including Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee). Meanwhile-like almost everywhere else-government services and aid are dwindling in the face of budget cuts and a rough economy.

There is a limit to what the state and federal governments are going to be able to do," said Ohio Department of Aging head Bonnie Kantor-Burman.

In 2000, about 25 percent of the population in three of Ohio's 88 counties was 60 or older; in 2010, that was true of 16 counties, most of them in Appalachia. By 2020, it's projected to be 76 counties.
These counties are like the canary in the coal mine," said Suzanne Kunkel, who heads the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University of Ohio. "This is a pretty dramatic change coming."

The area total for older adults stands around 15 percent, compared with 13 percent nationally. In some Appalachian areas, 1 of every 5 residents is already 65+.

More older residents, of course, means more demand for health care, low-income assistance and home help. But these things are already in short supply in much of Appalachia, a region that's long been plagued by isolated mountain homes, poor infrastructure, high rates of disease and the decline of the manufacturing and coal mining industries.

In the face of all this, community-based help and "innovative solutions" are critical, area aging experts say. The  Villages concept, pioneered in Boston, has been spreading to North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. West Virginia has designated six "retirement zones" where seniors can access affordable housing, health care, education, culture and recreation.  

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Photo:  Suzy Allman/Getty Images

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