Sensing Change: Growing Old In Rural New Mexico
The nation as a whole is getting older. 2010 Census numbers show the percentage of people over age 40 is growing faster than those under 30.
In New Mexico, the median age is 35, just below the national average. But look closer at individual counties and you'll notice some are far above that average. In Catron County, a largely rural area in western New Mexico, the average age is 59 - the highest in the state.
Most of the terrain in Catron County is swallowed up by two national forests. The altitude in some towns reaches above 7,000 feet. The mountain air is crisp and smells like juniper. In late March, people still light up their old wood stoves for warmth.
Catron County is an empty giant, with only about 3,700 (An earlier version of the story incorrectly reported the population as 37,000) people spread across 7,000 square miles. A subdivision here is a plot of 10 acres. Cell phone service is practically unheard of and the only thing on the radio is a lone country station.
Ten years ago, the median age here was closer to 49. County manager Bill Aymar explains the majority of the young people left in the late 1990's when the U.S. Forest Service severely limited logging, the strongest industry in the area.
“Once they left, it stratified the society of the county into the senior citizens that had fixed incomes that didn't depend on a job,” he said.
Living in rural America in the company of mostly seniors can present some pretty unique challenges.
Aymar offers one example.
“The average age of our average fire fighter is 62 years old,” he said. “There isn't anybody else to take those positions.”
Medical helicopters, on average, airlift people with health complications two to five times a week.
The closest hospital is more than 80 miles away along an isolated two lane highway. There are no retirement homes in Catron County and most people live in isolated patches of land away from the highway and paved roads. Many residents have four-wheel drive vehicles that can cruise through heavy snow or mud.
The handful of small towns scattered around the county don't offer many attractions for families. Last year, the high school graduation class in the village of Reserve, the county seat, was 12 students. Most young people leave once they reach that milestone. They look for work in cities like Albuquerque, Tucson or Phoenix. The few who do stick around work for the U.S. Forest Service, small businesses or the local saw mill.
On Fridays, the senior center in Reserve hosts bingo after lunch. A couple dozen residents usually gather for a lively game. Some take lucky charms, like tiny trolls and old socks. Boards are a dime a piece. One woman jokes about saving her winner's money for a face-lift.
Nan Skelton is the executive director of the senior center. An elegant woman in her 60s, Skelton wears turquoise jewelry and southwest attire. She helped found this and three other centers around the county 27 years ago.
“I've seen a lot of changes,” Skelton said. “When I came, the elderly were young retirees. Some of them had moved from Texas and California...and they were very active in the program. There were lots of activities happening then, dances, parties.”
Now those young retirees have grown older. Instead of parties, they prefer quilting.
Mattie Hobbs is a regular at the senior center in Reserve. At 97, she's among the oldest in the group. But that doesn't stop her from driving herself to the center nearly everyday. Hobbs is in good health with the exception of a bad case of arthritis. She lives alone, a mile away from her closest neighbor - her daughter. Living in a place like Catron County at her age seems tough, but Hobbs says she does just fine.
“We manage,” she said. “We're used to it.”
Skelton, the senior center director, said you've got to be a survivor to live in Catron County. She's getting ready to retire herself after 27 years on the job. With the scarcity of young working people, Skelton can't think of anyone capable of taking her place.
Finding her replacement may be a matter of luck.