Senior population growing quickly in Henry, Clayton

By Justin Reedy

When Morrow resident Janet Radack visits her doctor at a hospital in nearby Fayette County, almost everyone she sees are fellow senior citizens.

"Just about everybody there has a cane or a walker," she remarks with a chuckle.

Radack, 65, has noticed a trend in metro Atlanta – that the area's elderly population is growing, leading to more people taking advantage of health care facilities, senior centers and other services for the aged. The 10-county Atlanta region added nearly 57,000 residents age 65 and older between 1990 and 2000, according to U.S. Census data compiled by the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Clayton and Henry counties both saw sizable increases in their elderly populations during that period, as well. Clayton's senior citizen population rose from 10,625 to nearly 14,000, while Henry's went from 4,929 to nearly 9,000.

The percentage increase of Henry's population – one of the highest rates in the country between 1990 and 2000 – was even outpaced by the growth in its elderly population. Such a drastic increase has not gone unnoticed at the Henry County Senior Services department, where demand for services has skyrocketed as more and more seniors have moved here.

"We've seen a lot of young families move in and, as soon as they get settled, their parents follow them here to be close to their grandkids," said Sandy Craig, the department's director. "The increase in participation of our programs has been over 1000 percent. Both of our senior center facilities are at capacity."

In addition, the senior services department's in-home services – meal delivery, for instance – have seen participation double since 2001, Craig said, and all of the services now have waiting lists.

Likewise, Clayton County has seen an increase in demand for its senior services, according to Mindy French, the program manager in charge of the Clayton County Aging Program.

"We've noticed an increase in the senior population, and we've also noticed that the needs have increased," French said. "That means there's more need for Meals on Wheels, homemaker services, transportation services and other programs. We're trying to meet all of those needs."

In addition to taxing the capacity of senior services provided by local governments, signs of the growing elderly population in Clayton and Henry counties can be seen in other areas of the community, such as in the health care industry. Seniors are more likely to visit doctor's offices or the hospital, or to buy prescription drugs, French said, but a growing number of them can't afford those expenses.

"We have clients who sometimes have to choose between paying the rent or buying prescriptions for that month," French said. "Health care needs and the cost of prescription drugs are going to continue to be a big issue for seniors."

Though Radack is battling cancer right now, she doesn't have problems paying her medical costs since she's covered under her late husband's health insurance through Delta Air Lines. But she could just as easily not had that coverage and be facing problematic medical bills.

"I think if my husband wouldn't have worked for Delta, it would have been quite a struggle to pay for things now," Radack said.

Other senior citizens have had their financial problems reach the point where they've had to come out of retirement and go back to work, French said.

"Quite a few people have had to do that, and that number seems to be growing," she said. "It used to be when you retired, you were retired for good. Now, you get a lot of people who retire and then come back to work later."

One of Henry County resident Ronnie Puckett's friends had to do just that after the stock market decline erased most of his retirement savings.

"The stock market went down and it just devastated them," Puckett said. "He had to go work at Home Depot."

Those sorts of cases can lead to even more stress on senior services in a county, French said.

In addition to the growing elderly population affecting governments through increased need for services, the greater number of seniors in the Southern Crescent will affect planning of development and transportation. In the future neighborhoods will need to be designed with seniors in mind, Craig says, with nearby shopping centers, senior-friendly road signs and affordable and accessible restaurants.