04:02 PM PDT on Tuesday, May 31, 2011

By JIM MILLER and BEN GOAD
The Press-Enterprise

The number of seniors in Inland Southern California increased by nearly a third during the past decade, putting added pressure on government programs and services for older residents.

Riverside and San Bernardino counties ended the decade younger than the state on average, largely because of a burgeoning Latino population and a years-long influx of families with children looking for affordable homes.

But census data released this month showed that the 65-and-older population in the two counties increased significantly, growing from 342,000 in 2000 to more than 440,000 in 2010. Riverside County’s older population increased by 32 percent, the fifth-highest in the state.

In addition, both counties saw a sharp rise in the very elderly.

Riverside County’s 85-and-over population grew by 52 percent, to more than 32,000. About two-thirds are women, many of them living alone.

“We’ve got this aging population at a time of massive shrinking of federal, state and local resources, when we should really be ramping up,” said Ed Walsh, director of the Riverside County Office of Aging.

In Washington, lawmakers disagree about how to address the fast-rising cost of Medicare, the government-run health care program for seniors, and to maintain the solvency of Social Security.

At the state and local levels, budget cuts have slashed funds for senior-related programs in recent years. Casualties include the elimination of property-tax assistance for low-income seniors and money for adult day-care centers for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Dev GnanaDev, director of the Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, said aging baby boomers will only add to the strain on the region’s health care providers, who have been battered by the recession and many patients’ loss of health insurance.

“That’s why the future is scary,” GnanaDev said, stressing that the region has the lowest ratio of doctors — both primary physicians and specialists — to residents in the state.

Older people frequently develop chronic diseases. An estimated one-half of people 85 and older, for example, have Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia.

Walsh’s agency estimates that the county’s 85-and- over population will surpass 80,000 by 2020.

“We’re not anywhere near prepared for that. And that’s just one chronic disease,” he said.

CITY CHANGES

Some Inland cities, particularly in the Coachella Valley, saw especially large jumps in their senior-citizen population.

More than half of Indian Wells’ population was 65 and older last year, an increase of 10 percent since 2000. Its population of residents 85 or older more than doubled during that time.

La Quinta’s 65-and-over population grew by more than 146 percent in the past decade, and now comprise a fifth of all residents. Its 85-and-over population almost tripled.

A handful of California cities experienced a decline in their senior populations.

In Hemet, long known as a retiree hotspot, the 65-and-over population dropped from 19,447 in 2000 to 17,404 in 2010. The 11 percent decline led the state.

San Bernardino County’s senior-citizen population grew more slowly than its Inland neighbor, the census data shows.

That county’s Department on Aging and Adult Services has seen an uptick in demand.

Much of it seems linked to the poor economy and not just the increasing number of older people, said Paula McGrew, a staff analyst for the department.

Many seniors live on a fixed income, so tough times tend to affect them in particular, she said. “It’s just harder to make ends meet,” she said.

That is also the case for the department, which provides a wide range of services, including assistance with their bills, a meals program, home repairs and legal services.

“Unfortunately, our funding remains relatively flat,” said McGrew, who was unaware of any programs that had been stretched beyond capacity by the increase in demands.

MEDICARE BATTLE

The increase in area seniors comes as Congress in the midst of a fight over Medicare.

Nearly every House Republican voted last month in favor of a proposed budget bill that included a provision to transform the popular entitlement program into a voucher-like system under which people would receive subsidies to pay for private health care plans.

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