Coastal Delaware is at the crest of a population transformation

By Andrew Sharp
Photograph by Marianne Walch.
From the May 2023 issue


It’s called the gray wave, or the silver tsunami: a striking increase in the number of older people in the population as the baby boomer generation ages, birth rates drop and technological advances increase our lifespans. 

This global trend will strongly shape the coming years, and Sussex County is out in front — nowhere more so than in the coastal area. 

Census figures for southern Delaware are enough to make a demographics researcher spit her coffee. Around 30 percent of the population in Sussex County is age 65 or above, far above the national average (and is even higher on the eastern side of the county). And according to projections, that share is set to increase in coming decades. 

Workers in their 20s might read these predictions and immediately begin pondering the economic implications: Who is going to support this crowd of needy seniors? What about housing and health care? And that’s how the story is often framed — look out, the gray horde is coming.

But people who actually live in the beach region describe a contrasting scene: A collection of people with maturity and lots of life experience creating a vibrant community together, with opportunities to volunteer, enjoy natural beauty and build relationships. It’s gray, but not grim. 

Still, seniors’ needs and goals can differ from those of a younger population, and that means life could change significantly for all. What is the best way to prepare so everyone is able to live a fulfilling life here?

“We need to be better at looking at how to not just extend your life, but make your life more meaningful, and healthier and happier,” says Dr. David Tam, CEO of Beebe Healthcare in Lewes, which, like other hospital systems, is at the forefront of dealing with these changes. 

A look at the numbers

You would never have seen so many seniors in a crowd 1,000 years ago, or even 100. “This is unique in human history,” observes Minki Chatterji, a program officer with the National Institute on Aging. 

Recent data from the federal Administration on Aging shows the share of the U.S. population 65 or older is about 17 percent and growing. In 1900, by comparison, only about 4 percent had reached that age. 

If the nation is speeding toward a new kind of population array, coastal Delaware is a blur at the front of the pack. On the eastern side of Sussex County, about 36 percent of the population is 65 or older (compared to about 24 percent in 2011, a significant rise of more than 10 percentage points in a relatively short span). In the incorporated coastal towns, where many retirees live, the numbers are even greater: 

In Rehoboth Beach, around 44 percent of the population is 65 and older, according to 2020 census figures. In Lewes, the share is almost 54 percent. In Bethany Beach, it reaches 56 percent. 

The Delaware Population Consortium, a group commissioned by the state to study these trends, predicts that the senior population in Sussex County will also balloon in its later years: The consortium estimates about 8,500 people age 85 and older lived in the area in 2020, but that number is set to almost triple by 2050, reflecting longer lifespans. 

Building community

When the bubble guns opened up, laughter spread around the room. 

The audience at the Ocean View Cheer center was taking in a stage performance of the 1976 film “Bugsy Malone,” in which child actors portrayed Roaring ’20s gangsters and fired cream and custard at each other. The actors this time were members of the center — part of a service organization for mature adults — putting on their annual play. Instead of cream, the gangsters shot bubbles.

The props were simple — a cup for an old telephone, plenty of suits and fedoras and more than one false mustache (which did not always stay properly affixed). 

The performance, borrowing a page from the original rambling storyline, didn’t aspire to high theater. The atmosphere in the packed house, gathered around tables for a spaghetti dinner and a show, was that of friends enjoying each other’s company. 

“You can see the camaraderie,” the play’s director, Murry Gatling (himself a Cheer member), says of his actors before the show.

It’s a key part of the mission of organizations like these. “A lot of our families are in other locations, other areas, so we need to build extended families, need to [build] fellowship. This Cheer center provides that,” he says. 

The region is full of such opportunities, local seniors say, with a smorgasbord of ways to volunteer and stay active, pitching in with groups ranging from local historical societies to environmental and animal rescue organizations. 

Phyllis Rudd, who lives near Ocean View, was in the audience watching “Bugsy Malone.” Like most of the others at her table, she moved to the area from somewhere else. Rudd volunteers at a local elementary school, helps with a group that spays and neuters feral cats, and generally stays quite busy. Now retired, she says there’s so much to do here that “I don’t know how I ever worked.” 

Originally from Baltimore, Rudd reflects: “I always felt like when I came across the Bay Bridge, time stopped. So I always wanted to live on this side of the Bay Bridge.” 

Thea Quillen, who lives just west of Rehoboth Beach, has seen a lot of changes in the area over the years. Originally from Harrington, she worked as a teenager at places like Grotto Pizza and the now vanished Merton by the Sea hotel (on Delaware Avenue, not far from Funland). “I just pretty much knew from when I moved away because of my career that I was going to come back here somehow, some way,” she recalls. 

Quillen, too, cites a litany of activities she has participated in, from yoga and tai chi at Cape Henlopen Senior Center (she’s a board member there) to helping prevent food waste and working with the youth group at her church. An added bonus: She describes the social life in the area as excellent. 

Quillen is a fan of having so many amenities within a short distance. She’s also joined crowds of her peers in taking up pickleball

The senior center was a “saving grace” for Sara Rice, who lives with Quillen and also serves on the center’s board. When Rice moved to the area from Virginia, away from the place she’d been her whole life, it gave her a way to plug into a new community. 

“Everyone’s so nice and so friendly and so accommodating,” she notes. 

“There’s a lot of joy and excitement in the opportunities here,” Quillen adds. “Whether it is to ride your bike or go to the [senior] center, or down on the beach, go swimming, walk on the boardwalk. There’s just so many joyful things available.” 

Linda Bonville, administrator of Cape Henlopen Senior Center, has worked at the center for 44 years, so she’s seen the area transform along with the needs of the older population. The center used to mostly offer traditional activities like bingo or knitting and ceramics classes, Bonville says, but has expanded them to include transportation to theaters and shopping centers, and programming such as wellness education and “upbeat classes for the younger seniors who have retired here [early].” And, of course, the center is looking to add pickleball courts. 

Amid the evolving demographics, seniors’ concerns mirror those of the younger population — transportation, affordable housing, health care — but with special twists reflecting their changing needs. 

Can health care keep up?

Local hospital systems are all dealing with increasing demand for their services. Health care leaders say they are taking steps that include building more facilities, focusing on the specialties that seniors need, expanding telemedicine and home care, and trying to recruit more staff. 

“The senior population uses health care three times [more] than any other cohort,” notes Chris Hall, vice president and chief business officer for TidalHealth

Senior adults require more health care services and more complex interventions than younger individuals,” concurs Dr. Sally Dowling, vice president of medical affairs at Atlantic General Hospital. 

Tam notes that Beebe has had “a much higher utilization of emergency services as a population, because our population is older” — which means the health system is stretched more, he adds. 

The stresses on the system are obvious to some. “Try to find a doctor and get in within six months,” laments Karen Garrison, a retiree from the Ocean View area. “Good luck.” 

The growing need has driven the spate of new health facilities cropping up around the eastern side of the county, like Bayhealth’s planned hybrid emergency and walk-in center at Route 9 and Hudson Road. ChristianaCare has even opened a new facility on Route 1 near Midway specifically tailored for people 65 and over. Among other features, it offers a behavioral health specialist to help people dealing with loss, says Dr. David Trinkley, who is running the practice. 

“One of the things that really gets missed in our population as they age is depression and anxiety,” Trinkley explains. That can stem from such circumstances as the death of a longtime partner, declining vision, or loss of independence. To enjoy life and good health, he says, “the mind and the body, they have to work together.” 

It’s not about assuming that life is dispiriting for seniors, but making sure people have the resources they need to handle life changes. 

“A lot of seniors out there in their 70s and 80s, and sometimes even their early 90s, they’re still playing golf, they’re still having dinner parties,” Trinkley observes. “They’re still traveling, they’re still finding hobbies to do.” 

People shouldn’t assume that all physical limitations are inevitable as they age, either. Exercise and physical therapy can help address these, Trinkley says. 

The housing crunch

It may seem less obvious than health care as an issue for seniors, but shelter is another concern that’s often at top of mind. 

Home prices have soared along with the population, which can be a problem for the area’s less affluent seniors, 

Garrison points out, especially if they’re recently widowed and have lost a source of income. “They need to be able to age in place. And sometimes they can’t.” 

“Housing has gotten so expensive for people that are on Social Security,” says Lorraine Jordin, who lives near Ocean View. She cites “waiting lists like crazy for the apartments that are affordable.” 

Local leaders have focused a lot of attention lately on housing as an issue affecting everyone. Sussex County recently passed an ordinance attempting to make it easier to build affordable housing and offering homebuying assistance. It also offers grants to some homeowners for repairs or handicapped-accessible upgrades to what it terms substandard housing. However, the county notes there’s a long waiting list. 

Don’t forget the economy

Sussex County is seeing more deaths than births, according to Edward Ratledge, director of the Center for Applied Demography & Survey Research at the University of Delaware, but the influx of people moving to the area means it’s still growing. 

In fact, the gray wave is followed closely by a second wave of workers — or, that is, the need for one — to serve the needs of seniors, Tam notes. Seniors aren’t “just sitting at home,” he adds. “They’re active. They need services.” 

Carol Everhart, president of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, is confident that area businesses are doing what it takes to adapt. She mentions as an example the shift to curbside service by retailers, restaurants, even bookstores — driven by COVID restrictions but benefiting the older population in the long run. 

One big issue for businesses, however, has been finding workers. Everhart notes that a lot of retirees had part-time jobs but gave them up when COVID hit. Some seem to be returning, she says, but not enough to fill the need. 

That does create opportunities for businesses to be creative. Ashley Negron, a spokesperson for the National Institute on Aging, suggests that businesses take steps to accommodate older people who want to work, such as more flexible hours. It might be difficult, for example, for an older person to stand for eight hours working as a cashier. (It’s no picnic for any age, really.) 

“Maybe they can just do three-hour shifts,” Negron says. “I think it’s about maybe coming up with some flexibilities that meet them where they are, and their ability.” 

Certainly, many seniors do take up the work baton. 

Rice, the Cape Henlopen Senior Center board member, recalls sitting on a bench one day on Rehoboth Avenue and seeing a woman who looked to be in her 70s come along picking up trash. “And I said, ‘Well, look at you, how nice of you to do that.’” The woman responded, “Oh, I got a job with the city.” 

The sky is not falling 

While real challenges face the nation’s aging population, Chatterji underscores the wisdom this demo­graphic offers: “I think older people who experienced adversity can help young people learn about resilience and provide emotional support and love.” 

They also support each other. 

“[We] have gained a tremendous amount of friends that are in our age group,” says Quillen, the Rehoboth-area resident. Rudd, the Cheer center member, echoes that. “I have more friends now than I’ve ever had in my entire life.”

And there are plenty of opportunities to suit almost any interest, says “Bugsy Malone” director Gatling, adding, “It’s a great place to live.” 

To keep it that way, policymakers do have options. 

“The really good news is, demographic trends are predict­able,” Chatterji points out. “Key stakeholders in Delaware and elsewhere … have an opportunity now to enact policies, encourage behaviors that can really minimize [the challenges].” 

“The older generation, they’re our heritage,” Tam reflects. “We have to look toward the future in terms of the things that we can do to take care of the people who have helped us get where we are today.”