Our elders have deep roots, don't leave them out on a limb

Unless we die first, each one of is going to get old.

And more of us, many more, will be old. The baby boomers have hit their senior years.

Statistics put together by the Administration on Aging, part of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, show that, during the next three to four decades, there will be a significant increase in old people — particularly “the older aged,” those over 85 — and they will make up a much larger share of the overall population.

According to the United States Census, Americans 60 and over numbered about 43 million in 2005 and will jump to close to 74 million in 2020, an increase of 71 percent.

Moreover, there will be large increases in the numbers of what the administration calls “some very vulnerable groups,” such as old people living alone, especially women, or unmarried people with no living children or siblings.

We need to pay attention.

The United States has changed as a society from when we were mostly made up of farmers, where families tended to stay nearby, and sometimes generations lived together.

Today, family members can be far-flung and, even when they’re not, often all the working-age adults in a household are employed outside the home. Where does that leave the elderly who need to be cared for? Where does that leave the one-third of households with one or more people who are 60 or older?

The vast majority are not in nursing homes. The AOA cites a National Nursing Home Survey that found 5 percent of those 65 are in nursing homes and 22 percent of those age 85. The numbers of people in their sixties living in nursing homes has decreased in recent years.

Rather, many of the elderly who need care have informal caregivers. Nearly 66 million Americans — that is 29 percent of the population — provide care to someone who is ill, disabled, or aged, according the United States National Alliance for Caregiving, a not-for-profit that coordinates the work of many caregiving agencies. Unpaid caregiver services were valued at $450 billion in 2009 up from $375 billion two years before, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.

These legions of largely silent heroes sometimes need help. Locally, the Community Caregivers, founded 20 years ago, has been a model for providing respite for worn-out caregivers. The not-for-profit organization, which blankets our coverage area of the rural Hilltowns and suburban Guilderland, Bethlehem, and New Scotland — has recently included the city of Albany as well.

Community Caregivers harnesses the skills and energy of volunteers to help the elderly and others in need stay in their homes. A weekly shopping trip, a ride to a doctor’s appointment, a friendly visit now and then, or a household chore completed can make all of the difference.

“Aging in place” has become an important buzzword since it was coined in the 1970s. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention defines it as “the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures and the AARP Policy Institute released a report on aging in place two-and-a-half years ago that surveyed each state and found the great majority of older adults want to continue to live in their own homes and communities. A stunning 90 percent of adults over 65 say they prefer to stay in their current home as they age.

The report concludes, “As the older population grows, the degree to which it can participate in community life will be determined, in part, by how communities are designed.”

The report examines state policies needed to help old people age in place, including integrating land use, housing, and transportation so the elderly can walk to services they need; efficiently delivering services to homes; providing more transportation choices, especially for those who no longer drive; and improving affordable, accessible housing to prevent social isolation.

Aging in a rural community can be especially tough. “It’s not like a city, where you hop on a bus and take a transfer and hop off a bus,” said Linda Carman, who lives in Berne and writes a column on the Hilltown Seniors for our paper. She also said, “We don’t have any more grocery stores up here.”

Two vehicles owned by Berne can be used for shopping and medical trips, if enough sign up. Also, a Hilltown meal site closed for lack of use but, in a few weeks, another meal program is about to be launched in a more central location.

And in September, Senior Services of Albany, a not-for-profit organization, is planning to open a day program for the elderly, to run three days a week in a church hall in the Berne hamlet. The $45 to $49 full-day fee can be paid by individuals, through insurance, or by the county for those who qualify.

We applaud the program. It will give those who attend a chance to socialize and it will give their caregivers respite. If the day program regularly gets six or seven people, the director of Senior Services says, it could expand to five days a week.

Why sit home alone all day if your son or daughter is out working?

We’ve long admired the rugged independence of the people who first settled on the craggy Helderberg escarpment; the stubborn perseverance of the original Palatines has played out in later generations. Descendants of those first settlers still proudly people the hills.

Hilltowners need to realize that these government-sponsored programs are not handouts. Far from it. The Hilltowners have paid for those services over their years and years as hardworking citizens.

The elderly have earned and are entitled to these programs. The programs benefit the rest of us, too. First, because it costs taxpayers far less than subsidizing nursing homes. But, more importantly, we all gain when the elderly age in place.

Our elders enrich our communities. They understand the cultural evolution of our local history and they have skills — from baking and quilting to dousing and printing — that we could lose without them.

We often use the term “close-knit” in writing about the Hilltown communities. Time and time again on these pages, we’ve documented the way neighbors pull together to help each other in times of need.

The day program in the Berne church and the new meal program in the senior center is a way for Hilltown elders to gather together, enjoy one another’s company, and keep the close-knit fabric vibrant with their collective strength and wisdom.
— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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