New leaders to focus on aging

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Robert Friedman

Phyllis Madachy (left) is the new director of the Howard County Department of Citizen Services. Starr Sowers was recently named the head of the county’s Office on Aging, which reports to Madachy. Together, they are tackling such issues as economic security, caregiver education and fitness in the rapidly aging county.
Photo by Christopher Myers

Demographics, unlike statistics, don’t lie. In Howard County, more than one out of every five residents will be over 65 in two decades.

In the meantime, two members of the club are helping the county plan for the rest. Phyllis Madachy, 69, is the new director of the Howard County Department of Citizen Services, and Starr Sowers, 65, has been named to head the county’s Office on Aging, which is part of the department.

Appointed to their positions recently by County Executive Allan Kittleman, each has devoted several decades to public service in the county. Madachy is a former director of the Office on Aging, while Sowers has worked there for the past 30 years.

As of the 2010 census, just over 10 percent of county residents were 65 or over. But that figure is expected to reach 17.5 percent in 2025 and 21.6 percent in 2035.  

“It’s imperative that we meet the needs of seniors in Howard County, a growing and increasingly diverse population,” Kittleman said when making the appointments. He promised a “more dynamic and proactive approach to working for and with seniors across the county.”

Among other things, Kittleman is considering making the Office on Aging a cabinet-level department. That decision is expected later in the year. Madachy said she supports “new directions” to deliver services to the county’s aging.

A blueprint for the future  

In a joint interview with the Beacon, Madachy and Sowers were asked when the Howard County 20-year Master Plan for the Aging Population would be ready to be put into action.

The plan, which came to prominence last year with a series of forums and hearings, was touted at the time as “a comprehensive planning process to design the types of services, programs and facilities [needed] to address the future needs” of local older adults. According to the county website, it was set for release last January.

Madachy, who had been on the job only 10 days at the time of the interview, said she had read the plan and that it was based on data from surveys, focus groups and internal discussions. “I think it will be a major initiative,” she said. “I don’t know what that means yet, but I know the County Executive is very interested in it.”

 A preliminary presentation of the plan last December noted, among other things, that:

• transportation and living in their home independently are top concerns for the county’s seniors,

• “strategies to maintain independence are key, but not many [residents] have clear plans yet,”

• many older adults “have the mindset of ‘we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,’” and

• “community supports need to be put in place before the wave of older boomers hits — demand for services will come, but not until the last minute.”

The plan is expected to include alternative scenarios for older adults; include demographic and socio/economic data; compile a resource portfolio covering community-based planning and study initiatives, and produce a 20-year blueprint and action plan covering services, programs and facilities for the county’s aging population.

Transportation options

Advocates have proposed expanded and free public transportation for county seniors. Paul Verchinski of the Howard County Citizens Association has proposed that Neighbor Ride — a low-cost volunteer transportation service for those 60 or older — be expanded, and that the HATS (Howard Area Transit System), which provides transportation services to low income, elderly and disabled residents, should be made available free for all seniors between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays and all weekend.

Madachy said such policy changes would not be in her department’s purview. “This is an issue that is broader than can be solved by us,” she said. “It would have to be a decision involving the Department of Transportation” among other agencies.

She added that the county bus service has several “fixed routes for senior destinations.”

Building awareness

On another subject, Sowers said one of her priorities would be “to develop a market plan” so that seniors are more aware of the Office on Aging’s services and programs.

Senior advocates have said that many of the county seniors who need help don’t know where to find it, even if it is available.

Angie Boyter, a past president of the Howard County Citizens Association and a recent appointee to the local government’s Commission on Aging, noted that at a recent dinner she attended with several seniors, she mentioned the MAP (Maryland Access Point) website that lists resources the state offers to the elderly and those with disabilities. “No one knew about it,” she said.

Sowers said her agency will be “looking into direct mailing” to make as many seniors as possible aware of services currently available. She also plans to increase drop-off points for the new, 25,000 edition of the county’s hardcopy Resource Guide, available at libraries, retirement communities and public buildings.

Shoring up economic security

Sowers also noted that, despite the county’s reputation for high average incomes, an American Community Survey found that at least 12.5 percent of the county’s 65+ population have incomes at 200 percent or less of the poverty level. 

 “Economic security for many of Howard County’s older adults is at risk,” she said, announcing new programs for elders in the coming year. These include:

• expansion of the “loan closet,” which lends out donated medical equipment for county residents,

• an Economic Security Initiative “to improve the financial outlook for thousands of struggling older adults,” helping them get “personal assessments and connect to services,”

• a newly renovated and expanded Ellicott City 50+ Fitness Center,

• new weekday walks around the county, and

• an education program to help caregivers better handle the challenges they face.

Sowers’ previous roles in the Office on Aging included being manager of the Health and Wellness Division, where she oversaw the 50+ EXPO and WomenFest, and managing Senior Center Operations, with oversight of eight senior centers and three Senior Center Plus centers. She has a master of social work degree from the University of Maryland.  

Madachy has worked for the Howard County government for nearly 20 years. She was the county’s deputy chief administrative officer from 2007 to 2009, and served as project director for Opting for Independence, a project to help seniors age in place. She also serves as president of Neighbor Ride’s board of directors and as secretary for the Howard County Arts Council Board. 

“This is my biggest challenge yet,” said Madachy of her appointment to head the Department of Citizens Services, which in addition to the Office of Aging, also oversees the Office of Children’s Services, the Office of Consumer Affairs, as well as providing services for those with disabilities and the homeless.

Madachy acknowledged that both she and Sowers have their work cut out for them. “We’ll be working together to get people helping people,” she said.