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A wellspring of energy and an “Elders Bill of Rights.”

The Vineyard population is aging rapidly, bringing an array of challenges and concerns, but Islanders aren’t taking the unsettling news lying down. When the Rural Scholars, students from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, reported last October that the senior population of Martha’s Vineyard would swell dramatically in years to come, Island activists formed the Healthy Aging Task Force (HATF) to strategize ways to head off the challenge. The task force was developed as a sub-committee of the Dukes County Health Council.

A public meeting in November drew some 65 participants from across the Island, representing several dozen service agencies and providers. That session saw the creation of seven work groups along with a 20-member coordinating committee. Each group was charged with researching and developing responses for a single aspect of senior living.

A morning-long meeting last Thursday, May 22, at the M.V. Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven brought the groups together along with other interested community members to share their findings and map out action plans for months and years ahead.

Facilitated by HATF chair Paddy Moore, who is also a Dukes County Health Council member, and Peter Temple, executive director of the MV Donors Collaborative, the fast-moving meeting was carefully organized and kept to a precise schedule, employing slide presentations to emphasize facts, figures, and findings.

Massachusetts Secretary of Elder Affairs Ann Hartstein capped off the 3½-hour session, offering acknowledgement and inspiration, answering questions, raising ideas, and conveying the assurance that state government supports such local healthy aging initiatives.

“This is a wonderful celebration,” said Ms. Moore with a bright smile as she welcomed the crowd of nearly 100, pointing to the “wellspring of volunteer energy” and the progress underway.

“I believe that timing is all.” she added, saying this is the perfect moment for Vineyarders to prepare for challenges to come as the percentage of senior citizens grows.

Ms. Moore set the tone by introducing the task force’s “Elders’ Bill of Rights.” The nine-point document calls for seniors to enjoy a life that includes appropriate and affordable housing and transportation, the ability to fully participate in community activity, the choice of living at home or in a facility setting, receive high-quality care and make other decisions in later years, all in addition to being respected and valued by their community.

Mr. Temple recapped the warning from the Rural Scholars that the percentage of Island residents over 65 is growing rapidly. According to these projections, from 16 percent in 2010 the Island population of seniors will rise to 32 percent in 2030. The Island’s increase in older population is much more rapid than that of the U.S. or Massachusetts.

Projections show that the Vineyard’s percentage of elder residents will soon be surpassed only by that of Cape Cod, an area called by one observer, Mr. Temple reported, “Medicare by the Sea.”

Many of these older residents have low incomes and are living in homes that are isolated and not well designed or appointed for potentially changing needs and abilities.

Impacts will be felt everywhere, from the increased pressures on medical and mental health care to town services such as senior centers and EMTs. Adding to the challenges, Mr. Temple said, it is difficult to attract health care professionals and home care workers to the Island due to high living costs and limited housing options.

Before the worrisome predictions could cast a pall over the crowd, Ms. Moore introduced the work group presentations, providing varied responses to the challenges raised. Representatives of each work group outlined updates on findings and progress. Reports were clear, concise, rich with detail and optimism.

Reports made recommendations as common-sensical as exercise tailored to seniors, as useful as a centralized information system, and as ambitious as building a new, revolutionary type of nursing care facility and campaigning to change town zoning.

The work groups discovered, as the Rural Scholars did, that the Vineyard already possesses numerous services and programs that address seniors’ needs. In some cases, recommendations were for coordination, education, and adjustments so existing services would be better used.

The Community Engagement and Prevention group honed in on preventing falls, which are prevalent among older adults and can have far-reaching negative impacts on health and well-being. The group plans to institute of “A Matter of Balance” trainings on the Island. The peer-lead programs aim to lessen fears of falling, teach fall prevention and exercises to improve balance, strength, and confidence.

“Falls are the fourth biggest cause of death among the elderly, and our evidence-based workshop training on Matter of Balance can actually save lives,” Ms. Moore said.

Citing the importance of exercise, especially walking, and working with MV Commission staffer Chris Seidel and with support of the MV Chamber of Commerce, the group will soon make available online maps of all walking trails and pedestrian-friendly ways titled “Getting Around Martha’s Vineyard.”

A proposed “Seniors’ One-Stop Referral Service,” a centralized, web-based system, would provide comprehensive information on resources to guide and support elders, providers, and caregivers. Along with gathering and posting complete resource information online, the plan calls for establishment of an office with a staffer available full time to respond to telephone inquiries.

“Transportation is the thread that ties everything together,” said Leslie Clapp reporting for the Transportation Work Group. “If you’re isolated and lonely you’re not going to be very healthy.”

After surveying every mode of Island public transport and some on the Cape, the group aims to educate seniors on what is available. They also will strive to remedy several gaps that exist, such as travel to certain off-Island specialists and veterans’ services.

The Aging in Community group explored a new and promising model for small scale, personalized nursing facilities designed to look and feel like private homes. Fitting into residential neighborhoods, the Green House model offers private rooms, care based on a patient’s wishes, frequent direct staff contact, and could alternatively accommodate rehabilitation or assisted living programs.

According to the report, the Town of Edgartown has raised the possibility of including a Green House in a pending affordable housing development. With the aim of allowing seniors to remain at home whenever possible, the work group also will promote use of existing volunteer programs.

The Affordable Elder and Workforce Housing group intends to consult with town boards across the Island and push for zoning changes to allow accessory or “in-law” apartments which could accommodate an elderly family member, or a caregiver to help an aging homeowner.

Work is also underway to find ways to educate contractors on several simple design adjustments (e.g. wider doorways and halls, easy no-threshold doors, first-floor living potential) which could make new or retrofitted homes accessible, safe, and livable for older, wheelchair-bound, or handicapped residents.

More than one-third of Vineyarders now provide care on an informal basis to an older family member or friend, a number projected to rise to 55 percent by 2030. The Caregiver Support Work Group is exploring how to provide varied resources for those informal helpers from skills development to medical oversight and respite opportunities.

Funds will be needed to bring many of these ideas to fruition, but progress is underway. Ms. Moore announced a $5,000 M.V. Hospital Community Health Initiative grant towards the One Stop program. Anonymous gifts include: $2,500 for the Green House Feasibility Study; $1,750 for Matter of Balance Training; and $10,000 to fund a two-day consultation with the Altarum Institute’s Center for Elder Care and Advanced Illness. The MV Donors Collaborative has contributed time of its executive director and other proposals are pending.

As the meeting ended Ms. Moore urged participants to share all they had learned with neighbors and friends, offer ideas, and consider volunteering.

“There is a lot of work to do,” she said.

Massachusetts Secretary of Elder Affairs, Ann Hartstein, spoke to the group, and her remarks are here.

For complete slides from the May 22 presentation and additional information visit:

dukescounty.org/Pages/DukesCountyMA_HealthCouncil/DCHATF

or

mvdonors.org/documents/PresentationMay22.pdf

For information or to volunteer, contact Paddy Moore: mooreii@aol.com or 508-693-1627.