CHATHAM – Aging in Place, according to various websites, means the ability to continue to live in the place one calls home safely, independently and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level; to continue to live in a familiar environment and be able to participate in family and other community activities.
Just how aging in place would work in Columbia County was explored at an all day conference Sunday, October 18, sponsored by the Chatham Synagogue and titled Aging in Place: A Multi-Generational Approach.
Columbia County is already the second oldest county in the State, with 17% of its 62,000 inhabitants age 65 years or older, according to the US Census Bureau. With baby boomers entering this age bracket, part-time homeowners retiring in their “county homes” and an out-migration of younger persons and families, the share of Columbia’s population for whom aging in place will be a pressing concern will very likely continue to grow over the coming decades.
The National Aging in Place Council (NAIPC), one of several collaborative groups of professionals to organize around this subject, states on its website, www.ageinplace.org, that the group “was founded on the belief that an overwhelming majority of older Americans want to remain in their homes for as long as possible, but lack awareness of home and community-based services that make independent living possible.” NAIPC sponsors a number of public education activities, including the designation of the week of October 12 to 18 as Aging in Place Week throughout the United States.
The Aging in Place Initiative, another organization sharing this interest, approaches the subject from a community planning perspective. Its mission is helping communities “prepare for the aging of their populations, and become places that are good to grow up in, live in and grow old.” The group notes that:
*Today, there are more than 35 million Americans age 65 or above–over the next 25 years, that number will double, and one in every five Americans will be age 65 or older
*Only a small minority move to warmer climates upon retirement
*Fewer than 5% of the 65-and-over population resides in nursing homes. Instead, most Americans choose to age in place, within the same communities where they have long lived.
A small number of communities throughout the country have established administrative structures that promote aging in place by arranging for a range of services, such as non-medical transportation or crisis response. Persons who join these structures purchase these services on an as-used basis. Communities such as the Beacon Hill section of Boston and Princeton, NJ, have developed these entities.
The local conference, the timing of which according to its organizers was coincidental with the NAIPC campaign, began with an overview of support services, service gaps, and challenges that was co-presented by Kary Jablonka, county aging administrator, and Diane Franzman, executive director of the Health Care Consortium. The remainder of the conference focused on strategies to address three areas that often impede a person’s ability to live independently: accessibility within one’s home (e.g., stairs, bath fixtures), memory decline and physical decline.
A brainstorming session occurred after the formal presentations, which according to the conference organizers Thalia Cassuto and Ernestine S. Pantel, Dr.PH, exhibited “enormous energy and curiosity” and a willingness explore how to make our community more accessible for persons who are aging.
In a post-conference interview, Dr. Pantel, an assistanr professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, expressed the hope that conference participants will attend one of the regional seminars on this subject being sponsored by the state Office of the Aging. She saw this as a step toward “creatively exploring” how to promote change in the community.
Establishing service networks or other entities that support seniors to age in place within Columbia County will be more challenging than doing so in more densely populated areas. Such factors as the spread of the population, limited public transportation and, according to Mr. Jablonka, a “cultural geography,” where many residents tend to remain rooted to the same general area combine to affect the ability and willingness of persons, particularly seniors, to access services outside their immediate communities.
Mr. Jablonka estimates that 80% of help received by seniors comes from family, neighbors and friends, so a major role that his office can play to support seniors to age in place is to help the helpers. An event such as that held at the Chatham Synagogue, he says, is important to getting out information on resources and services to those who form the support system of many of the county’s seniors.
National experts and local advocates agree that there is a need for governments and civic bodies to examine, for instance, comprehensive plans, zoning and land use policies to determine if they are consistent with the needs of older citizens ranging from affordable housing to the installation of benches in walkways and other public spaces. There is a similar need for community organizations and service providers to review how an increasingly older population will be able to access their facilities and programs. And it is critical that older persons, preferably with their families, assess their own present and future needs for transportation, housing and socialization among many others as they age.
In addition to informing the public about what is in place now, both the conference organizers and Mr. Jablonka emphasized the need to continue a “sustained conversation” about the needs of seniors.