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Associated Press

HELENA — Montana's population is expected to gray significantly over the next three decades.

New population estimates released by the Census Bureau show Montana's 65 and older population is projected to more than double between 2000 and 2030. Older Montanans will outnumber those under age 18 by that time — a flip flop from the current makeup of the state.

Montana is expected to rank 5th in the nation in 2030 in its percentage of residents 65 and older at 25.8 percent. Only Florida, Maine, New Mexico and Wyoming will have larger 65-and-over population segments.

"People are just living longer," said Charlie Rehbein, head of Aging Services in the state Department of Public Health and Human Services. "They're healthier, but then when they get sick they're getting sicker."

Rehbein said the 269,558 older residents expected in 2030 could place a severe burden on Montana's nursing homes and health care facilities, especially in rural areas, where such services aren't as developed.

He and others believe the state needs to start planning for that influx by setting aside money in a state trust fund. Montana's Aging Services Network, a loose coalition of service providers, pushed for development of the Older Montanans Trust Fund this year using money from a proposed soda pop tax, but the tax did not pass the 2005 Legislature.

Rehbein said he expected the network to try the idea again in 2007.

"We need to try and maximize what we're doing now to help those people who need help, but we also need to be thinking down the road," he said.

In 2000, people 65 and over accounted for 13.4 percent of Montana's population while those under 18 represented 25.5 percent.

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By 2010, 15 percent of the population is expected to be 65 and over, a figure that will grow to 25.8 percent in 2030, the Census Bureau said.

About 20 percent of Montana's population, or 210,342 residents, will be under 18 in 2030.

Maps provided by Rehbein's bureau show the state's eastern counties will experience the largest increase in older residents, making up 10 of the 15 counties with 65-and-older populations of 26 percent or higher by 2025. Gallatin and Missoula counties will continue to be the youngest areas of the state with older population segments of less than 10 percent.

The state's total population is projected to increase 15.8 percent over the next three decades, reaching 1,044,898 in 2030. Montana ranks 25th in its percentage of projected growth, the Census Bureau report showed.

The fastest-growing states were expected to be Nevada (114.3 percent), Arizona (108.8), Florida (79.5), Texas (59.8) and Utah (56.1).

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