By TRAVIS HANDY
In April, New River Valley Agency on Aging (AOA) hosted five Community Conversations on Aging throughout its service area, which includes the counties of Floyd, Giles, Montgomery and Pulaski, and the city of Radford. The conversations were a way of gauging the changing needs of the aging population in our region and identifying ways to improve the area’s livability for seniors and their caregivers.
Among the purposes for the community conversations was to address concerns of older adults, adults with disabilities, caregivers, state, local and federal government officials, long-term care service providers and healthcare providers and provide a forum to discuss strengths and resources in each community related to “aging in place.”
Aging in place is defined as “the ability to remain in one’s own home or community in spite of potential changes in health and functioning in later life, benefiting older adults, their families, communities and governments.
Tina King, AOA executive director, said the keys to reaching the goals identified in the local communities relies on “bringing the public and private sectors together to determine resources that are available and needed to support a growing population of adults that wish to age in place and remain a vital part of their communities.”
“Some of the needs are not just unique to aging, but could also support a more livable community for people of all ages,” said King. “If localities would devise a long-term comprehensive plan, this would help.”
Information from the conversations will be considered as AOA prepares its annual area plan for services and to work with localities to provide input to assist with future planning. King indicated that for the most part, the conversations did not bring up new or unanticipated issues, but affirmed what is already being seen and experienced in our area.
AOA facilitators presented information from a report by MetLife Mature Market Institute, in partnership with the Stanford University Center on Longevity. The report cited three indicators that best promote aging in place for older citizens.
The three indicators include: a variety of housing options that are accessible and affordable; features that promote access to the community, such as transportation options, safe driving conditions, walkable communities, emergency preparedness and the like; and community supports and services for healthcare, home and community-based services, opportunities to participate in community life, and supports in place for caregivers.
Participants in the conversations were invited to think about those three indicators and give their views on what was existent in their communities already, and what their communities may be lacking in terms of those indicators and other relatable topics. A report provided by AOA breaks down the information gathered in each of the five conversations.
At Pulaski County’s conversation, participants pointed out strengths in the areas of public transportation, although there is still a need for accessibility to public transit to some of the more outlying areas around the county. Two caregivers pointed out transportation for ongoing medical treatments such as dialysis is a great service with a growing need to accommodate more individuals.
One of the other concerns expressed was that, while there are “seasoned and effective aging service providers and an array of core services available,” there is a need to spread the word that those services are available to many individuals who may not be aware of them. A need for service providers and agencies to have more sharing of information and access to services and resources was also discussed, although it was mentioned that Pulaski County has many core services available, along with volunteers who contribute to assisting older adults and adults with disabilities with aging in place.
Affordable assisted living and housing options are also an issue in Pulaski County. Minimal public assistance exists to help defray the costs for those who qualify, but few facilities can afford to designate space for public pay residents. This also doesn’t account for individuals who must have their homes modified in some way in order to stay in them.
“Many older adults with declining functioning levels need to have their homes modified in order to continue living there,” said King. “Also, many of their homes are older and the cost of repairs and heating and cooling are prohibitive. Rental housing doesn’t seem to meet even the current needs of those seeking affordable and accessible housing. The need will continue to grow.”
Ideas also were entertained for developing an adult foster care program, partially patterned after a program that is operating on a small scale in Montgomery County through the Department of Social Services, using auxiliary grant funds to help pay foster home providers who house and support individuals who qualify.
With regard to supportive community-based services, it was mentioned that Pulaski County is working on the development of an adult day services and fall prevention program, for which the county just received funds from a Community Development Block Grant funding program operated by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). The proposed adult day care and fall prevention center would be housed in the former Newbern Elementary School.
There was additional discussion at the Pulaski gathering on the need for an acute, non-emergency, urgent care outpatient facility which could possibly prevent unnecessary hospitalization, as well as affordability and availability relating to in-home care services such as homemaker and personal care came up as a concern from several agency representatives and service providers.
Radford’s conversation was the only one that did not include an older adult or adult with disabilities or caregiver from the community, but health and human services providers and a local elected official were present, which did lead to a lively, informative discussion.
Assets to older adults in Radford include the public transit service, providing affordable and accessible transit within the City of Radford, with connections to Fairlawn, New River Valley Mall and availability to Carilion New River Valley Medical Center. Other assets were a wide availability of healthcare providers and close proximity to a full-service hospital.
Several service providers indicated they are serving a population presenting with more debilitating chronic health issues, with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on the increase. With that noted, it was pressed that care coordination, case management and care transition services are becoming more important for optimal outcomes and to restrict options for care the least. Care providers in the Radford conversation also discussed the use of tele-medicine and other technology to monitor individuals’ health and produce better outcomes for patients.
“Because of the prevalence of chronic diseases among older adults, it was noted among service providers that we are seeing an increasing number of people with debilitating chronic illnesses,” said King. “To ensure that transitions to and from hospitals and rehabilitation facilities back to the community have optimal outcomes, it is imperative that health and human service providers, the individual, and their caregivers communicate and work together on a consistent basis.”
This is happening to some extent now, according to King, but it needs to happen with every care transition. The results, she said, “would be better health for individuals and more cost-effective care for both individuals and service providers.”
King said it is important that communities recognize that while an aging population’s needs should be addressed, we should also examine the benefits the process can bring, as far as helping our elders age in place.
“The majority of older adults still have a great deal to contribute to their communities in a volunteer capacity,” said King. “Through the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program alone, the return on the federal dollars spent in each locality and the work that gets performed is astounding; not to mention how tremendously it benefits the individual that is volunteering.”
The AOA hopes to hold these community conversations in the future in order to maintain a clear picture of the changing needs of our older population.