Seniors' growing needs define
desert county of La Paz
The Arizona Republic
PARKER — There are places
in La Paz County where you can climb a hill and look in every direction
without seeing a house or a single person.
The view is just greasewood
desert and volcanic hills marked by lonely highways and an occasional trailer
or RV cluster.
you do happen to spot humans, chances are they'll be senior citizens, because
this section of western Arizona boasts the oldest population of any county
According to the U.S. Census
Bureau, the median age in La Paz County is 50, compared with 36 nationally.
Nearly one-third of the 20,046 residents are 65 or older. Just eight years
ago, the 65-plus group made up barely more than a quarter of the population.
In some respects, La Paz
County hints at the future of rural life in an aging America, or at least
in its remotest parts. Seventy percent of the residents survive on less
than $800 per month. One in five lives below the poverty level. A fourth
of the adults are disabled.
"I have no earthly idea why
anybody would want to come here, because we don't have anything for 'em,"
said Darla Tilly, advocate for the elderly in Parker. "No services. No
assisted-living programs. Every provider except me comes from outside of
La Paz County."
She quickly added that there
is something paradoxical about the elderly here: Despite the social and
medical stresses, most residents are active and stubbornly independent,
with an attitude that says, "This is my life, and I'm going to do it how
Paul Winer, 65, a bookstore
owner in Quartzsite, said the county is defined and blessed by geriatric
denizens: "Everyone here chose to be here. And there is nothing about this
windy, dusty desert to make anyone stop. It's a void that fills in entirely,
and is colored completely, by the incredible people who stopped and stayed."
"The Coming of Age," a study
four years ago by the St. Luke's Health Initiatives, says Arizona is about
to become a "gerontocracy," with the state's population of residents over
60 tripling by 2050.
"The steamroller is age -
old age - and it will remake our society in the first half of the 21st
century," concludes the report, predicting major ramifications for health
care, housing, transportation, families and the U.S. economy.
In a survey last year conducted
by the Area Agency on Aging of Western Arizona, 30 percent of the respondents
reported feeling lonely, sad or depressed. The survey covered Yuma, Mohave
and La Paz counties.
Jill Harrison, the agency's
regional director, says there are pockets of extremely old residents who
live alone. They are divorced or widowed. Many can't drive, can't afford
to move and suffer major ailments. They also fear change and may be too
proud to seek help.
"Sometimes, when people get
depressed, they just give up," she adds.
At the Parker Senior Center,
Tilly organizes a class in floral arrangements, a Bingo game and live music
by the Remember When duo. She oversees a crew that serves 125 miles daily
to the homebound over an area of 4,800 square miles.
Then she heads out to visit
Veronica Uhrincak, gray and wrinkled, living alone in an old trailer 16
feet by 8 feet.
Uhrincak cries at the sight
of visitors and gets confused trying to give her age: "I'll be 91 in May,
I think . . . I'm almost 90."
She said her husband died
two decades ago. Until last year, she remained at their place in Vicksburg,
a highway junction 40 miles away. "I was afraid to live there anymore,"
she explained. "I was the only woman in town."
Uhrincak says she gets by
on Social Security but struggles. "I need pills. It's so expensive. I went
to the drugstore and couldn't find my insurance card."
Tilly asked if Uhrincak would
like a scooter to get around. "Yes," the old woman answered. "But not a
new one, because I'm going to die. A secondhand one only."
Here's a strange fact: Despite
the number of elderly, there is not a single nursing home in La Paz County.
When folks get too sick to
care for themselves, they are moved to convalescent centers in Yuma or
Phoenix or Lake Havasu City, or back home near the kids.
But as Beverly Carpenter,
68, of Bouse, notes succinctly, "We aren't ready to die yet."
In fact, the majority of
these seniors are very busy living. The gem and mineral club in Quartzsite
has nearly 1,000 members. The metal-detector group has more than 500. On
nice days, the desert is alive with old folks hiking or driving all-terrain
"Even if they can't walk,
they can ride an ATV," notes Alex Taft, services administrator in Quartzsite.
"It opens up another horizon for them. . . . We're into the Baby Boomer
seniors, and their needs are not the same (as previous generations). They
want to be active."
"Tough Golf" may best illustrate
the hardy spirit. Quartzsite doesn't have legitimate links. But industrious
locals staked flags in the virgin desert, creating what they call a golf
course. No tee times, greens fees, cart paths or rules, but it's very popular.
"You take one club that you
get at the Salvation Army and you hack away," Taft says. "Everybody loves
La Paz County snowbirds mostly
hunker down in RV parks or scattered camps on Bureau of Land Management
lands, visiting the annual Gem and Mineral Show among dozens of attractions.
Some swarm to the Parker Strip, a 16-mile stretch of Colorado River famous
for boating and fishing. Others spill into unincorporated outback communities
such as Salome, Harcuvar and Bouse.
But Quartzsite is the big
magnet. You may have driven through town heading to Los Angeles on Interstate
10. In August, it's an eyesore of vacant lots wavering in a heat mirage.
In January, it's the busiest RV park on Earth.
Either way, you likely wondered
aloud, "Why the hell would anyone live here?"
Every resident interviewed
for this story claims to have asked the same question. Yet, over time,
they came to love the place.
Officially, the town has
3,497 residents with an average age of 65 1/2. But, for nearly six
months, the uncounted population is an estimated 250,000, plus several
million tourists who drop in for a week or two.
Taft says no one plans to
stay permanently. But, year after year, stragglers get left behind. "Most
of them start out as just winter visitors. They end up leaving the RV here.
And then they get tired of the drive."
"After a few years, the desert
grows on you," agrees Paul Lenkner, 69, who moved from Oregon a decade
ago. "For somebody on a limited income, living here is a lot easier than
in a metropolis."
Taft says state and federal
funding are based on census data, so Quartzsite is overwhelmed by the annual
snowbird migration. La Paz County does not have a gerontologist. Paramedics
get flooded with medical calls. Police are constantly checking on shut-ins.
"There is a feeling generally
that we are not up to the task of taking care of our seniors," Taft said.
"People we know who are fragile are also determined to be independent."
Robert Stuckey epitomizes
that hardiness. The 78-year-old slowly pedaled his tricycle along Main
Street, then turned down a driveway and stopped beside a decrepit camper
on an old truck.
Stuckey wound up here after
getting injured on the job at a Mesa mechanics shop in 1985. He has lived
in the camper for 23 years. There's a heater and an air-conditioner inside.
He rides the tricycle on a 10-mile circuit every day from Burger King to
the truck stop to the library and so on. Then he returns to the camper,
One window is completely
covered with duct tape. Stuckey says the glass cracked several years ago.
"Didn't want to put any money into it," he mutters.
Lots of talent, stories
Carolyn Guthrie, 61, a Quartzsite
Town Council member, said the elderly bring all sorts of talent, stories
and eccentricity with them. There are constant music jams, card games,
singles dances, crafting classes and other events.
"It's just fun. There's always
something going on," she says.
Then Guthrie mentioned the
nude guy who runs a business that everyone calls the "Naked Man's Bookstore."
"He's legal as long as he doesn't bend over," she says, grinning. "Women
line up to buy bookmarks from him."
She was talking about Winer,
proprietor at Reader's Oasis Bookstore. On a cold and rainy day, he actually
apologized for being clothed. Pictures of him on the walls verified that
his favored attire is a birthday suit, accented by a cowboy hat and a G-string
with a cup.
Winer explained that he used
to be a musician, a piano player who stripped during his shows. He doesn't
feel comfortable being confined.
Winer said seniors in La
Paz County have established their own culture. The town is run mostly by
aged volunteers who bring a depth of experience and expertise.
Old people may feel marginalized
in mainstream America, he added, but they appreciate one another in Quartzsite.
"Here, they are the majority
without being defined (as over the hill). These are people who are retired,
but they're actively living. . . . These people are young again."
More on this topic
La Paz County
Area: 4,500 square miles.
Median age: 50 (national
Residents 65 or older: 32
percent (national is 12 percent)
Median household income:
$28,973 (national median is $50,007).
Residents below poverty level:
19 percent (nationally, 13 percent).
Source: U.S. Census Bureau,
2005-2007 American Community Survey.
In 2006-07, the Area Agency
on Aging of Western Arizona interviewed 626 residents in Yuma, Mohave and
La Paz counties. Among the findings:
• 66 percent said they moved
to western Arizona in the past decade.
• 38 percent said they live
• 30 percent reported feeling
lonely, sad or depressed for at least two weeks.
• 31 percent did not graduate
from high school.
• 24 percent never participate
in community events, clubs or activities.
• 66 percent reported suffering
from heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other chronic illnesses.
• 34 percent rely on rides,
taxis or buses for transportation.
• The most common primary
• When asked what the best
part of growing older is, the most common answer was: "Nothing."
• When asked what the hardest
part of growing older is, the most common answers were: sickness, declining
health and loneliness.
Health care and aging
• By 2030, there will be
71 million Americans age 65 or older, 20 percent of the nation's population.
• By 2025, 20 percent of
all Arizona residents will be in that age group, an increase from 13 percent
where we are at right now. DataStormUsers
map ID 98
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