Elder service groups plan for a graying population

Participants in the June 10 forum exchanged information about the needs of an aging population and how to meet them. Photo by Alisa Booze Troetschel.

The Age Wave quietly flowed into Rappahannock County in the past decade. How to gracefully ride its crest, rather than flounder in its force, was the topic of discussion for about 50 people meeting at The Link in Sperryville on June 10.

Sallie Morgan, chairperson of Aging Together, explained that by 2020, 25 percent of the residents of Rappahannock, Fauquier, Orange and Culpeper counties will be more than 60 years old. The senior population is growing faster than any other segment in Virginia.

Morgan views Rappahannock as the canary in the coal mine. One-fourth of its citizens are already more than 60 years old. Overall, the Rappahannock County population expanded 2.7 percent from 2000 to 2008. But in those same years, the 60+ contingent grew 8 percent.

Rappahannock County Administrator John McCarthy welcomed the crowd to the two-hour meeting organized by Aging Together, a regional group for elder services, and its local team, Rappahannock Eldercare.

“Aging Together is not about a certain number. It’s about building strong community,” said Chris Miller, project manager for Aging Together. “If you want to have Rappahannock be a place where you get to grow older and have good quality of life and connections with your friends and family, that actually involves all aspects of community.”

In order to identify goals for the next five years, and how Aging Together can best contribute, Morgan and Miller interviewed and surveyed 260 seniors, providers, health and social service workers, local government officials and caregivers in the region in March and April.

“It’s really about where should we focus our time and resources in the coming years,” Miller explained. “For us, it’s hearing community voices back about how we can support them in making this the community in which they want to grow older in.”

At the June 10 session, Morgan began by describing the characteristics and qualities of the elderly. More than two-thirds live in family households. Over one-fourth lives alone, most of who are women. Almost 70 percent of older people live in family households. Only five in 100 live in group quarters, such as nursing homes.

Making their entree to their senior years is the baby-boom generation. They are more educated and more at ease using technology than past generations past. They are likely to search for quality volunteer and leisure activities. However, their families are smaller than those of their parents. Support from relatives may decrease.

Many of the Rappahannock seniors who need services are lifelong residents. They bought land years ago when it was affordable or inherited it.

“I think in the past they’ve gone through too many hardships,” said Philip Kuhn, who came to Rappahannock when he was four years old. “They need a better way of living.” As a volunteer, Kuhn drives seniors to medical appointments and to markets, and transports food trays from Culpeper to the Scrabble Senior Center.

“They don’t have wealth behind them,” added Sharon Pyne, adult services social worker for Rappahannock and leader of the Eldercare team. “In this county we have hidden pockets of folks that have a lot of needs but they’re not in the forefront.”

The top three needs identified by Rappahannock respondents are the support of caregivers, expansion of services, and health and wellness opportunities, according to Miller. Seniors in the five counties concurred, but ranked the objectives with different priority. Across the region, the most important goals are to expand services, provide easy-to- get and easy-to-understand information, and to support caregivers.

“What we’ve learned in the past is that there’s a lot of commonality,” said Morgan. Expanding services is most important everywhere except in Rappahannock, where caregiver support is most valued.

“Caregiving is at the top of the list of anything Aging Together does,” said Morgan. Families provide 80 percent of elder care. Miller and Morgan stated that caregiver training has been well-attended throughout the five counties.

Caregiving can be physically and emotionally trying, as well as isolating. Establishing a caregivers’ support group in the community, which Pyne saw as a critical need, is under way. About 10 people attended the first meeting. “There was a lot of very frank sharing,” said the group’s facilitator, Larry Stillwell. “In some cases there was a lot of emotion involved because people were sort of unburdening themselves with other people who understand what they’re going through.”

The caregivers’ support group plans to meet every other Thursday morning at The Links. Volunteers provide respite care and snacks for everyone. After playing cards and music and singing, “they all had big smiles on their faces,” Stillwell said.

Health and wellness ranked third in importance for Rappahannock, as it did with seniors across the region.

Ellie Clark, a yoga teacher, garnered applause when she pointed out that fitness is important for all ages.

Kuhn raised the all-important question: “Where is the money going to come from?” to expand services and achieve other goals. Morgan replied that needs are met by pooling community resources.

“One of the things that Aging Together has real capabilities to do is to search out grant opportunities,” Morgan added.

Elizabeth Lee spoke about the importance of keeping older ones in the county rather than them having to leave to obtain necessary care. Affordable assistance in homes is part of the answer. A shortage of home health aides was seen as a huge problem in Rappahannock. “The need is going to grow phenomenally,” said Morgan.

“There are some private paid folks, but they’re $20 an hour,” said Pyne. “Some folks can afford that and a lot of folks can not.”

Pyne is exploring feasibility of offering a class for home health aides, which would include CPR and first aid training. A side benefit could be encouraging younger residents to stay in the community by increasing opportunities to earn money. This work might also enable younger mothers with school-aged children to add to their families’ income.

Aging Together’s core leadership team will construct a “generic plan for the region” from the survey results and feedback presented during interviews and Community Conversations, said Morgan. Using this overall plan as a starting point, the county teams and regional groups will establish their objectives. Morgan hopes to have plan completed and distributed in September.

For more information about the caregivers’ support group, write Larry Stillwell at lstillwell@agingtogether.org.

About Alisa Booze Troetschel 30 Articles
By some folks' standards, Alisa Booze Troetschel is a newcomer. She moved to northwest Virginia two years ago after completing graduate studies at the Missouri School of Journalism. She has photographed, written and edited for local, regional and national magazines and newspapers, while delighting in the beauty surrounding her new home.