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HELENA - They grew old farming the land in this sprawling eastern Montana county that befits its name so well, and they stay once the work is done.

So the fact that Prairie County has the state's eldest population is no surprise to those who live there.

"We have a lot of funerals here," said Esther Kogele, manager of the county senior citizens' center in Terry. "People come from the surrounding area to retire. It's a cheap way of life."

Prairie County, its 1,200 people scattered across 1,737 square miles, had the state's highest median age of 59.9 years in the 2000 census. That means half the people were older and half younger.

Only 9 percent of the population is under 10 years old and only one in five is younger than 21, the smallest proportions of youth in any county.

"The young kids are gone," said Chip Mintz, a physician assistant at the clinic in Terry. "They take off for the big cities for work. What you have left is an aging population."

Most of the elderly have lived in the county all their lives and rely on a support system of friends and family, she said.

The demand for senior services is high, Wolfe said. The council relies on private donations to supplement its $60,000-a-year budget and make ends meet.

Ravalli County, at the opposite end of the state, also has a reputation as a retiree haven. But it has a median age of just 41 - 3 1/2 years higher than the state average. And unlike Prairie County, many of the elderly moved there after retirement.

While there is a need for senior citizen programs, many older citizens in Ravalli County are a different lot than in Prairie or Daniels counties, said Forest Hayes, director for the county's aging council.

"A significant number of seniors moved here from elsewhere in Montana and comfortably retired," he said. "They spend a significant amount of money in the county."

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