County seeks friendlier aging

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Barbara Ruben

Attendees at Montgomery County's recent Summit on Aging pose with County Executive Isiah Leggett, right, who convened the event to gather input and recommendations to help make the county more aging-friendly. Shown from left: Samnang Wu, Terry Clark, Ann Andonian and Rosemary Arkoian, who were among the more than 400 older adults, government officials and professionals in aging services who shared their views at the summit.
Photo courtesy of Montgomery County Executive’s Office

Silver Spring resident Beverly Blakey, 64, doesn’t drive, and says it can take her two hours to get to some destinations via circuitous routes on public transportation.

On the other hand, one of Rosemary Arkoian’s main concerns is too much traffic and not enough roads in the northern part of Montgomery County. The 75-year-old Gaithersburg-area resident, who has lived in Montgomery County for 50 years and calls herself “a bit of a community volunteer, civic activist and general noodge,” says that while she is growing older with relatively few problems, she is concerned about affordable housing and healthcare for other aging residents.

And at 72, Geraldine Hogans, who lives in Silver Spring and is visually impaired, wishes there were more part-time employment opportunities.

All three women attended December’s Summit on Aging, called by Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, in which more than 400 government officials, older adults and community stakeholders exchanged views on what’s working well in helping residents grow older, and what issues need more attention in a county where the proportion of aging adults is escalating.

According to the Maryland Department of Aging, people 60 and older comprised 19 percent of the population of Montgomery County in 2013, but that will rise to 25 percent by 2025.

To better understand the needs that will arise from this surge in older adults, Montgomery County has held focus groups and surveyed residents 55 and older about their concerns and priorities. In addition, it is now the first jurisdiction in Maryland to pursue an Age-Friendly Community designation from the World Health Organization.

Becoming an Age-Friendly Community involves a rigorous five-year or longer process that helps ensure every aspect of an area’s government, business and academia is focused on helping an area’s population age comfortably and safely. More than 70 other communities in the U.S. have already signed on.

Planning regionwide

Montgomery County is one of many jurisdictions in this area drawing up a blueprint to address the needs of its growing older population.

The District of Columbia has been in the process of qualifying as an Age-Friendly Community since 2013. Howard County just finalized a “framework” for becoming Age-Friendly. Arlington County has an Elder Readiness Plan, and Fairfax County has its 50+ Community Action Plan. All find that including public input is key.

“I’m very pleased with how the county is focusing on our seniors and aging,” said Gaithersburg resident ` Fleming, who attended the recent summit. “It’s very good to know that, as a resident of Montgomery County, my voice is being heard.”

And that’s exactly what Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett was hoping for when he convened the summit, which was patterned on a similar event he put together in 2008.

“I believe in bringing people together. It gets us engaged,” Leggett said in his remarks. “You feel the energy and the drive. We are fortunate to have here the people who have invested: the people who have engaged in the past, the people who pay the taxes and build the infrastructure.

“We stand on the shoulders of the elders who have helped us get where we are today. And we can do an even better job for our children and grandchildren in the future.”

Affordability is an issue

Since the 2008 summit, which produced a raft of recommendations and ongoing committees, the county has made strides in a number of areas, according to Austin Heyman, who focuses on senior issues in the county’s Office of Community Partnerships.

“We’ve made progress in transportation,” Heyman starts to recount. “We now have a mobility and transportation coordinator. RideOn bus service is free [for seniors] during some hours. The Jewish Council for the Aging (JCA) is coordinating Senior Connection rides.”

But he acknowledges issues remain. Housing was a big concern at the summit seven years ago and continues to be a worry for many older adults. One-third of county seniors pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, which have risen faster than general inflation.

To help combat some of the problems, the county created partnerships to acquire or preserve thousands of units of affordable housing, and is now partnering with developers to build nearly 1,000 new units of affordable housing for seniors.

Still, “affordable housing remains a work in progress,” Heyman said. “It’s a challenge. We need to devote more resources.”

The more than 2,000 respondents to the Age-Friendly Community Survey agreed, even though the majority rated the overall quality of life in Montgomery County as good or excellent. Surveys were collected between September and November to help shape the Summit on Aging.

Just 23 percent of respondents rated affordable housing as a good or excellent feature of Montgomery County, and 70 percent reported that they are at least somewhat concerned about their ability to afford a good quality of life in retirement here.

On the other hand, when asked whether they would recommend Montgomery County as a place to retire, 58 percent overall rated the county as excellent or good in this regard.

And, perhaps surprisingly, members of the largest ethnic groups were even more likely to recommend the county as a good or excellent place to retire, including 77 percent of Asian respondents, 73 percent of Hispanic respondents, and 65 percent of African American respondents.

Emerging concerns

While the final recommendations from December’s summit have not yet been compiled, Uma Ahluwalia, director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, has identified some emerging issues that weren’t as prominent during the 2008 summit.

“Not only are the numbers [of older adults] growing, they’re also getting more diverse, which means things like language access and comfort in getting services from government, as opposed to [from] nonprofits, are issues,” she said.

In particular, the close family units many older immigrants were able to rely on in their home countries are less typical here in the U.S. “Our natural networks are beginning to fray. Often [people’s] children live far away, and seniors are left on their own and isolated,” Ahluwalia said.

Ahluwalia also said that seniors need better access to jobs because they are working longer, in part because of the high cost of living here. The survey found that 41 percent of residents plan to work full or part time after age 65.

“That is a very, very big issue for seniors. It keeps coming up,” she said.

Over the last few years, the county has helped promote employment for older residents by supporting the annual 50+ Employment Expo presented by the JCA, and starting an awards program to recognize the best employers of older adults in the county.

Related to the fact that more older adults are working longer, fewer are able to take advantage of senior centers and their extensive programming, most of which takes place during the day, according to Gabe Albornoz, director of Montgomery County Recreation. His department is starting to look at how senior centers can be open longer hours, and for ways to offer programs and classes in the evening and on weekends.

Together, Ahluwalia and Albornoz chair the County Executive’s Subcabinet on Senior Vital Living — an interdepartmental group of county officials that focuses on ways to promote successful aging.

“The spirit of cooperation and collaboration in our county, which has really been facilitated by our county executive, not merely encourages, but creates time and space for all of us in county agencies to work together and with the public,” Albornoz said.

“I think we have a really strong roadmap, a really strong infrastructure,” he added. “We didn’t want to just make sure the next couple years were going to be set. We wanted to make sure the decades beyond that are set as well.”