As the population grows throughout America, the share of citizens ages 65 and older is increasing steadily in rural areas, while that same population share is stagnant in urban areas, according to a recent report from the United States Census Bureau.
This rural increase in the older population is evident in Pittsylvania County. The percentage of the population over age 65 is 20% in Pittsylvania County, compared to about 14% both for Virginia and the United States as a whole, shows data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey five-year estimates.
The median age and share of the older population is increasing across the country, but the majority of that increase is from rural areas. Survey data shows the median age is increasing at a faster rate in Pittsylvania than Virginia as a whole. The current median age is 46.4 in Pittsylvania County, compared to 38 years old in the rest of the state.
Since 1980, the overall size of the rural population has fluctuated but remained somewhat steady, but the share made up by the older population has increased from 11% to more than 18% during the period between 2012 and 2016, according to the report. In urban areas, the entire population has grown significantly in that time, but the older population’s share has remained steady.
While Census Bureau study authors Amy Smith and Edward Trevelyan do indicate a few possible contributors to these trends — such as people tending to retire in rural areas — it does not comprehensively explain why.
“This report isn’t necessarily about why the population is growing overall … it’s more like a snapshot of what does the existing rural population look like and how is it different than the urban population,” Smith said.
Right now, there are about 46 million people in the United States aged 65 and older. Of those, 22.9% live in rural areas. So it’s not that the number of the older population living in rural areas is greater, but their percentage of the local populations is much higher and growing at a faster rate.
In Pittsylvania County, emergency medical services has its hands full keeping up with an aging population that is spread thin throughout nearly 1,000 square miles. Chris Slemp, Pittsylvania County director of public safety, said the aging population has led to an increase in 911 calls that fire and rescue crews are having to run throughout the county.
“As the population gets older ... the EMS systems are just getting overwhelmed,” he said.
He also said there are a significant number of repeat callers, which they try to refer to adult protective services. Oftentimes, the situations don’t merit a 911 call, but the people involved don’t have a better resource for help, he said.
“We’re getting a lot of calls now where you’re just going to help them get off the floor,” he said.
Smith said there is an unmet need for skilled nursing options throughout rural America, something that would help with the surge in 911 calls.
The effects of aging citizens, particularly on rural America, are only beginning to be felt, the authors of the report said.
“The impact on rural areas could be substantial and long term,” the report said.
Declining birth rates and the aging of the baby boomer generation — a large generation born between 1946 and 1964 — are two of the primary contributing factors to Virginia’s aging population, according to the Weldon Cooper Center, a research group with the University of Virginia that works to develop Virginia population projections.
The first of the baby boomer generation hit age 65 in 2011, which means the percentage of the population older than 65 should only continue to increase. By 2040, the 65-and-older age bracket in the United States is projected to be upwards of 80 million, according to ACS data.
In Pittsylvania County, about 15% of the population falls into the 55 to 64 age range, with about another 15% coming from the 45 to 54 age bracket.
Pittsylvania County administrators could not be reached for comment on this story.
The most recent estimates from the Weldon Cooper Center shows only 12% of Virginians will live in non-metro areas by 2020, while the populations in large cities and metropolitan areas — such as Richmond, Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia — are growing disproportionately.
The center is projecting Pittsylvania County’s population decline slightly by 2040, as the older than 65 population grows to 26% of the total. Pittsylvania County currently has a population of about 61,000, Census data shows.
Statewide, those same projections show 18% of the population will be older than age 65.
In Virginia, 32.7% — which translates to just over 374,000 people — of the state’s total older population of 1.14 million people live in rural areas.
Of the national population of people 65 and older, 45.9% of them live in the South.
The Census Bureau currently is working on the 2020 Census, where everybody in the United States will be contacted.
“I don’t have any reason to believe that the 2020 census survey will be any different … particularly around these estimates,” Smith said.
Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.