Local Governments Must Prepare for Maturing America

There is an old cliche saying that it takes a village to raise a baby.  With aging adults forgoing assisted living facilities and nursing homes in hopes of staying independent and in their own homes as long as they can, perhaps it’s that same village that is needed to provide them with care and support.

“The Maturing of America– Communities Moving Forward for an Aging Population,” a newly-released report from the National Area Agencies on Aging (n4a), claims that many local governments are simply “holding the line”  when it comes to providing strategic support and services to their older residents.  The cause, according to the report, is the “maturing” of the aging population coupled with recent economic downturns. In many cities, this in itself has been a financial hurdle.

The report is a follow-up from a 2006 survey which established benchmarks to prepare for the millions of Americans that are reaching retirement age each year. Areas such as healthcare, housing, transportation, taxation, volunteer opportunities and many other facets of life that are pertinent to aging Americans are examined. The conclusion:  Holding the line is simply not going to be adequate.Aging America stresses local governments

“Although communities have done an admirable job to maintain the status quo considering the economic conditions we’ve faced, given the dramatic aging demographics, the status quo is not good enough,” Sandy Markwood, chief executive of n4a told the National League of Cities in a June 13th article. “These findings should be a major wake-up call for local governments and should motivate them to take immediate actions that will address the challenge and opportunities at hand.”

The goal behind the report is to make local governments aware of the changes that are will be necessary in order to accommodate for the influx in older Americans as baby boomers continue to age.  It is expected that by 2030, one in every five Americans will be over the age of 65. The hope is that every town and every city will have a “livable community” for all.

It seems as though communities as a whole are making strides in certain areas, while falling short in others.  In light of natural disasters occurring around the nation, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, more than half of the surveyed communities have increased the availability for specialized training for emergency staff when dealing with older Americans.  There has also been a steady increase in the support services offered in the home so that older adults are not forced into skilled nursing care or assisted living communities before they are ready.

The survey also uncovers the rise in communities providing older adults more opportunities to be contributing members of the society.  With the economic downturn postponing many retirements, job retraining and educational opportunities have become critical for many baby boomers.  A rise in volunteer programs has also become a strategy in acknowledging the invaluable resource of older volunteers.

A Shift in Challenges

Housing, financial issues and heathcare were the top three challenges uncovered by the original 2005 survey.  Financial and funding shortages, transportation and housing round out the top three in 2010.  It is believed that there is a correlation between these rankings and how local governments assess their economic conditions.  Each of these challenges lead the way to other aspects of life that greatly affect quality and health. For example, a shortage of accessible, low-cost public transportation  can cause seniors to forgo follow up medical visits due.

Overall, most reporting communities feel they have adequate health care opportunities.  There is, however, some disparity between rural communities and larger areas.  Small towns are less likely to be able to provide some of these services, which also include prescription drug programs. A large percentage of towns provide both nutrition programs and age-specific exercise programs to enable seniors to maintain an active retirement and a healthy lifestyle.  In the years since the first survey, there have been no significant gains in transportation availability, and there have been some declines in both public safety and public/subsidized housing.

It is becoming evident that financials can no longer be an excuse for apathy when it comes to providing services for what is likely to be the largest demographic in many small towns across America.  There are many communities which have begun initiating programs to help prepare themselves, their caregivers and their residents for this shift.

Successful Programs:

  • In Westchester County, NY, caregiver resource centers are set up in 16 libraries providing resources to the 34,000 caregivers across the county.
  • The Elder Help Program was established in Ventura County, California to provide assistance to home bound elderly.  The program, which uses funding from Older Americans Act, offers in-home assistance such as light housekeeping and chores, personal care and non-emergency medical transportation. The program also utilizes contractors and other funding sources to maximize its services.
  • The Hawkeye Valley Area Agency on Aging and the Northeast Iowa Food Bank developed the Elderly Nutrtion Food Box program, which delivers 15-meal food boxes to older residents in rural ares once a month. The program was designed to ease the burden for low-income elderly, who often have to make the decision between food or medications.

For each of these programs, there are hundreds of others geared specifically for older adults. But there are thousands of others that need or are awaiting funding.  In the coming years, it will be imperative for local and federal governments to establish strategic and fiscal plans for aging adults in order to prepare for the shift in the nation’s demographics.  The question now becomes: Is your community prepared?

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