Essay : Aging gracefully, aging in place, aging here
Many of us look forward to our golden years with anticipation. Long walks on the beach, visiting family and friends, and nesting in the homes we've built over the years are all part of that dream. But often as we age, staying home, enjoying our lives, and living independently becomes more and more difficult. According to the AARP, 80 percent of seniors want to live at home for the rest of their lives for a variety of reasons, including the familiar environment, feeling of independence, convenience to services, safety and security, and proximity to family and friends. The current "aging in place" movement aims to help those who want to stay home be able to do so as long as possible.
What exactly is aging in place? According to The Journal of Housing for the Elderly, it is growing older without having to move. Ann Baird, the service coordinator for Island Elderly Housing disagrees. Many of her clients in elderly housing may have moved from lifelong residences, but they are living independently with support from the IEH staff and other agencies in the community.
"Providing housing where tenants don't have to worry about home maintenance and taking care of the grounds takes an enormous amount of stress off of an elderly person", Ms. Baird says, and she stresses that as the aging process progresses, her clients may need increased services. "We provide housing for a big population of low-income elderly, with the idea of helping them live independently as long as practical."
Joyce Stiles-Tucker, the director of the Tisbury Council on Aging (COA) for the past 29 years, sees changes in the demographics of the population she serves. "When I was growing up, if somebody lived to be 70 years old, that was something," she says. Nowadays, Island COAs are assisting clients well into their 90s and beyond.
She believes this is due to the emphasis her agency and others puts on aging healthily. "All the COAs work together with Elder Services to keep people in their homes as long as possible," she says. "We are educating them on healthier lifestyles, including exercise and nutrition, and it's working."
Ms. Stiles-Tucker has a challenge for the baby boomers. "They need to start thinking about living healthier now and start younger rather than older."
Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands also plays a major role in helping seniors age in place. Jacque Cage, the director of Elder Services on the Island, has worked with this population for 25 years. She says the advantage for seniors today is that they have choices. Earlier in her career, she noticed that "the only opportunity for care and support was to enter a healthcare facility" and before the Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center was built, Island elders had to go to the mainland for care. Today she says things have changed for the better. "Seniors may not be able to live in the same place they did, but they want to be able to decide what their options are," she says.
Elder Services offers a myriad of programs designed to help the elderly, including Meals on Wheels, the Family Support program to assist caregivers, the Homecare program, which provides home health aides for personal care and homemaking, and the Community Grant program. Ms. Cage thinks the community on the Vineyard works together well to reach a common goal. "Everybody in the community has to participate for this to work", she says. "Lots of things happening on the Vineyard are positive - tax abatements for the elderly and accessory apartments with flexible zoning."
One of the agencies that supports the Elder Services Homecare program is the Vineyard Nursing Association. Sandie Corr-Dolby, RN, Clinical Director of the agency, sees the strong role VNA plays in the aging in place concept. "We provide essential services to support clients who are living at home. Very often the mind is sharp, but the body is weak, so if we can send someone to give a bath, clean the house, and do the laundry, that can make a huge difference in someone's life."
The VNA has also started a new Private Care service to meet the needs of community members who may not qualify for Medicare or Elder Services. Ms. Corr-Dolby reports, "It has flexibility that other programs don't have. We can transport clients to off-Island appointments, we can run errands or sit and keep someone company to give the caregiver respite. We've taken a client's car to get inspected because they were too ill to do it themselves, and we've even gone to Boston in a snowstorm to pick up an elderly client from the hospital, whose daughter was snowbound in another state."
There are some areas that need attention, according to the caregivers. Ms. Stiles-Tucker is concerned about the physical challenges presented by Island housing. "The aging process is often blamed for problems some elders have in their homes, but actually it is often the living environment itself that causes problems, and residential housing is geared for young adults." Ms. Baird sees a need for better transportation options for elders.
Although Island buses stop at elderly housing complexes, it is often too great a challenge for some seniors to use those services. Ms. Baird says, "We need better transportation options for seniors who don't drive, that they can afford."
All the agency representatives agree that the individuals dedicated to helping Island seniors lead productive lives are working well together and making a positive impact. Ms. Stiles-Tucker sums it up, "Everybody who comes to the Island is impressed, because they can't believe how well the agencies work together to provide the services needed for the seniors we care for."
Terrie MacLaren is the supervisor for home health aides at the Vineyard Nursing Association. She has a bachelor of science degree in clinical nutrition from Michigan State University and a master of arts degree in communications from Auburn University.