EDITORIAL: We’re older than you think

FEELING YOUR AGE? You’ve got a right if aches and pains seem more numerous than ever and you find yourself saying, “What’d you say?” You’ve got plenty of company too.

Census Bureau estimates rank Columbia County as having the second oldest population in the state based on median age here, which is 46.5 years. (Oh, to be 46 again!) The only older county is Hamilton in the Adirondacks, at 52. That whole county has fewer residents than the Town of Ghent, unless you count the bears.

Census data also list median age by community, but you have to be careful with those numbers. The census says that the oldest median age in Columbia County is found in the part of Stottville that census officials identify as being of the Town of Greenport. But wait, Stottville is located in the Town of Stockport, not Greenport.

Don’t worry about Stottville because, guess what? … the same census data says another part of Stockport has one of the youngest median ages in the county. The Census Bureau has something for everyone.

The Census takers who reported these old-but-young results weren’t fighting hangovers the day they surveyed Stockport. The apparent extremes result from one of the factors that still makes this county such a desirable place to live: It’s not crowded here and small differences can have big impacts statistically speaking. In the case of Stockport, it’s likely that the Greenport-Stockport data included a housing facility for seniors. Mystery solved.

Aside from census blips there are real challenges that stem from having a population far older than the state and the country. Consider employment. Right now local job market figures look great. In April, the county’s unemployment rate was one of the lowest in the state at 3.7%. If you want a job in Columbia County, you probably can find one. That’s good for workers, but for employers, it can mean positions go unfilled and raises questions about where new businesses eying the county and local businesses planning to expand will find new employees.

Does the median age affect employment? Not necessarily. The percent of the county’s population that’s between 20 and 64 years old–presumably the most productive years–is roughly the same here as statewide. But the percentage of our population over 65 is noticeably larger than the state average and we have more older workers than the norm.

Put another way, our workforce is graying. A lot of us already are working past the age of 65 either because we prefer to or because we don’t have a choice. And we vote.

All over the county communities need repairs and improvements to water and sewer systems, to schools and roads and bridges and to firefighting apparatus. The Village of Kinderhook, for example, has just completed connecting its business district to the sewer system operated by the adjacent Village of Valatie. Kinderhook had state and federal funding but local taxpayers also bear a burden. And the census data say Kinderhook village residents are even older than the county median age.

The Village of Chatham, meanwhile, is upgrading its water system while trying to figure out how to replace a fire truck at a cost of nearly half a million dollars. Kinderhook just borrowed over $102,000 for firefighting gear. And that’s just two municipalities.

All of these expenditures of public funds and many others are critical if we want to sustain our quality of life. But there’s a limit to the costs of infrastructure and services that local government can put on the shoulders of voters, more and more of whom are aging into a dependence on fixed incomes.

Don’t think of aging as a problem like broken pipes or potholes; it’s part of the human condition. And most of us–if we’re lucky–adapt to its constraints. The problem is that as a county we have known about our unusual abundance of older residents for a long time and done very little to prepare for it. Why doesn’t the county make this growing sector of our population a public focus of all our planning? Where are the initiatives that explore the practical impacts of this demographic shift?

Don’t look at this as a demand for special status. There’s already too much of that going around. What all levels of local government need to understand is that the future has arrived earlier than expected and we had better take concrete steps to address it because it’s not going away.

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