As Bette Davis once said, “aging isn’t for sissies.” Parenthetically, if you know who Bette Davis is, then I am reaching the right audience. In spite of the search for the fountain of youth, the aging process inexorably takes its toll on the body— chronic disease, decreased energy, aching joints, decline in visual acuity. The big question is, how does one deal with this change? By reacting, or preparing?
According to an analysis of Ulster County demographic data, “the county’s aging population is increasing and will become a larger percentage of the population.” Between the years 2000 and 2035, the county’s overall population is projected to increase 6% (due to births and the influx of new residents), but the number of seniors over 60, 65 and 85 years old will increase dramatically —72%, 79% and 100% respectively—due to the aging of the existing population.
When I examined the age of Gardiner residents in 2008, there were 862 over age 60 and 326 over 70. A survey by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) reports that almost nine out of ten people over 60 wish to live out their lives in familiar surroundings. This concept of staying in your home for as long as possible and maintaining your independence and dignity is promoted at federal, state and local levels because it is cost effective.
There are many examples of grassroots community efforts to create viable ways for people to grow old at home. Beacon Hill Village in Boston pioneered “the aging in place” approach ten years ago. The 400 members pay yearly dues in exchange for the security of knowing that a pre-screened carpenter, chef, computer expert or home health aid is one phone call away. The Town of Montgomery (which includes Maybrook, Walden and Montgomery) has organized a volunteer program called the Seniors’ Independence Project, designed to assist with transportation needs, simple chores, light housekeeping, yard work and snow removal. Its brochure lists pre-screened vendors who also give a discount when asked.
In Ulster County, the Family of Woodstock received a grant from the New York State Office for the Aging to explore the needs and current support systems for maintaining seniors in their homes. This study, which covers the northern half of the county, may serve as a template for the rest of the county. In particular, it is designed to focus on issues related to rural areas. One of the key problems is transportation; imagine what would happen if the keys to your car were taken away. In the 2010 Office for the Aging survey of seniors, transportation ranked near the top as an issue that impacts their lives. It is especially a problem in rural communities. Currently, UCAT (Ulster County Area Transit) and RSVP (Retired Seniors Volunteer Program) provide some assistance. The AARP is the lead agency in legislation to improve pedestrian safety. “Complete Streets” legislation, currently before both houses of the legislature in Albany, requires engineers to consider the needs of all users of the roads: to provide crosswalks, to time lights to allow seniors to cross roads safely and to install sidewalks. Safe pedestrian traffic will encourage people to walk, and minimize their reliance on automobiles.
Statistics show that seniors are more likely to get killed on our roads because of poor pedestrian accommodations that fail to adjust to their needs. Zoning laws such as Gardiner’s, which encourage housing in the hamlet, will provide an environment for more walking and less riding. With the support of the County Executive, Mike Hein, the Office for the Aging plans to make the “aging in place through community empowerment initiative” a priority in 2011. Since Gardiner’s Master Plan mentions the need to address the quality of life of its older residents, this may be the time to start preparing for the future. With surrounding communities working together, we can help older residents live independently with dignity and a sense of community.