While the nation’s senior population is growing at a rapid pace, growth rates for South Jersey’s counties barely changed over the past decade, U.S. Census Bureau data released Wednesday show.

Local numbers barely changed because senior populations were relatively high to begin with. Cape May and Ocean counties still have the state’s highest percentages of senior residents — more than 21 percent.

The percentage of people aged 65 or older living in Cape May County increased by more than 1 percent — about 300 people — from 2000 to 2010. During that same period, Ocean County’s percentage decreased by a percentage point, from 22 percent in 2000.

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Cumberland County’s percentage also decreased by less than a percentage point, hovering near 13 percent, while Atlantic County’s rose to 14 percent.

In New Jersey, the number of people 65 or older grew by almost 7 percent, compared with about 5 percent for the population as a whole, to make up nearly 14 percent of the state’s total population. 

Nationwide, there were more than 40 million people ages 65 and older last year, an increase of about 5 million since the 2000 census.

Despite the minuscule changes locally during the previous decade, experts predict that the percentages will steadily rise over the next 20 years.

“For years, that’s been the resounding theme — ‘The wave is coming, the wave is coming,’ and now it’s here,” said Elizabeth Bozzelli, executive director of the Cape May County Office on Aging.

People born in 1946, the year the U.S. Census Bureau considers the beginning of the post-World War II baby boom, celebrated their 65th birthday this year.

“The main thing that we’ve known and we’ve known forever is that the baby boom population was very large,” said David Burdick, director of the Stockton Center on Successful Aging, “and the only thing that we could predict with certainty is that they would get older.” 

As the leading edge of that population bubble ages, a number of social issues arises — including an increased need for geriatric medical services, programs for seniors and what it will mean for the job market.

In many ways, the region has been preparing for this trend.

The staff at Southern Ocean County Medical Center has been upgrading its services and facilities in recent years, gearing them more to a percentage of older patients.

Earlier this year, the hospital was designated as a site that specializes in nursing care to benefit older patients by the Hartford Institute for Geriatric Nursing at New York University College of Nursery. The center also established a geriatric-fracture program this year to expedite care for people over age 65 who have suffered hip fractures.

Richard Ridge, vice president and chief nurse executive at the medical center, said the staff has been looking at the region’s aging population for years, and that its recent approach has been both reactive and proactive.

“This is something that’s been happening, and it’s looking forward because it’s going to get more intense,” he said.

Burdick said the nationwide trend of an aging population is clear, but local changes can cause slight fluctuations, such as younger people moving from the expensive locations in Cape May to cheaper residences in Cumberland.

He said that means policy makers and researchers should be analyzing ways to best accommodate citizens who are getting older, with life expectancies exceeding what they once were as a more health conscious group of people reaches their 65th birthdays.

Finding the appropriate services and opportunities for a growing number of senior citizens in this area will be key.

“If we can shorten the age of disability, compressing morbidity as we say, then we will have accomplished something,” he said.

Bozzelli said the need for services in Cape May County is already very high, and that with the state of funding for such services today being relatively low, she said it is difficult to prepare for an expected increase in seniors.

“It’s extremely difficult to plan with funding the way it is,” she said.

At the same time, she said the latest generation of seniors is not simply looking to have services provided to them. Often, they’re looking for work, either to make some extra money, or simply to stay involved.

Barbara Heim, 73, moved to Lower Township from Lancaster County, Pa., with her husband after retiring about 12 years ago. Their son married a woman from Cape May, and they fell in love with the area.

Heim is a volunteer at the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, and is also involved in the local Women’s Community Club.

She said it was certainly not a surprise that the county has the highest concentration of seniors in the state. Indeed, most of her friends are also transplants who retired here as well.

And she also said she wouldn’t be surprised if she sees a lot more people moving in.

“We are constantly saying to each other that we are so lucky to have made this move,” she said. “We feel like we’ve hit the jackpot.”

Contact Lee Procida:

609-457-8707

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