Older Americans Month

Natalie Snider (from left), a senior program assistant with AARP Virginia; Bob Eiffert, the former chair of the Alexandria Commission on Aging; Chip Boyles, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission; and Marta Keane, CEO of the Jefferson Area Board for Aging, talk about the age-friendly initiative. Photo by David McNair. #nosale

When it comes to advocating for government planning initiatives and policies that benefit older people, advocates sometimes find it hard to get the public to push decision makers to act.

“We tend to dismiss people as they age,” said Natalie Snider, a senior program assistant with AARP Virginia, “... so government doesn’t deal with these planning and policy issues. .... There’s more of a focus on the needs of schools, young families, new businesses.”

But that could be a big mistake.

As Snider points out, by the year 2030, there will be 73 million people in the United States older than 65, and 18 million people will be older than 85.

“Aging is one of our most significant public health issues,” declared Chip Boyles, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. “By 2030, one in four households in our area will include one person over 65, and that’s about 60,000 people in our area over 65.”

“Are we prepared for this?” Snider asked.

Good question. Snider and Boyles, along with Bob Eiffert, the former chair of the Alexandria Commission on Aging, and Marta Keane, CEO of the Jefferson Area Board for Aging (JABA), emphasized the importance of addressing aging issues in our community during a talk at last month’s Tom Tom Festival.

“The aging population is growing, every week, every month,” said Boyles, “and so local leaders are going to see the breadth of this issue soon enough.”

To that end, JABA, the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, The Center, local area governments, the University of Virginia Health System, and more than 20 other organizations have teamed up to form the Charlottesville Area Alliance (charlottesvilleareaalliance.org) so that they can more effectively advocate for age-friendly planning and policy initiatives.

“The idea,” Boyles said, “... is to make ours the most age-friendly region in the country.”

When it comes to thinking about the older population in the Charlottesville area, much of the focus seems to be on the attractiveness of our community as a retirement destination — hence the appearance of magazines and supplements feature vibrant-looking seniors on bicycles living their best lives. Indeed, for healthy seniors with means, there are a lot of opportunities here.

But as JABA’s Keane pointed out, nearly a third of seniors in our area live alone and 11 percent live below the poverty level -- a situation that could grow worse, especially in more rural areas -- and even middle-income seniors could find it a serious challenge to make ends meet.

Indeed, as New York Time columnist Paula Span recently pointed out, many middle-income seniors facing the inevitability of needing caregiving services at some point are realizing that they simply won’t be able to afford the care. In a decade, about 14 million people will fall into this category — double what it is now.

“Sixty percent will need canes, walkers or wheelchairs to remain mobile, the analysis estimated, and 20 percent will need extensive help with the so-called ‘activities of daily living,’ such as bathing and dressing,” Span wrote.

As Eiffert pointed out, assisted living is now so unaffordable for most people, at $6,000 to $10,000 a month, “that it’s mind-boggling.” Naturally, he said, developers are now interested in building assisted living facilities because of the monthly income they generate. So one thing they’re doing in Alexandria is asking for proffers from developers to provide low-income units.

But even before having to consider assisted living, Eiffert said, the number-one concern for seniors in Alexandria, according to a recent community survey, is something that’s become a hot-button issue locally for people of all ages: affordable housing.

As part of Alexandria’s age-friendly community plan, Eiffert said, officials are pushing for modifications to city regulations to permit “assessory dwelling units” to increase the stock of affordable housing in urban areas. There are some challenges, however, as he says that such units aren’t popular in dense urban areas because people fear the parking situation will become worse. Other initiatives include the development of so-called “granny flats” in the suburbs and developing programs that provide public services to allow seniors to stay in their homes.

Ironically, making communities like ours more age-friendly may mean bringing younger and older people together in a common cause. Like retirees (boomers), younger people just starting out (millennials) are drawn to urban, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods where parks, stores, entertainment and restaurants are nearby. Boomers also would prefer easy access to nearby health services.

Boyles mentioned a development in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he was involved with, developing a 200-acre site that never had a building on it.

“We specifically designed the neighborhood for both people retiring and just starting out,” he said. “Because they both want the same kind of neighborhoods.”

This kind of neighborhood model tackles another key issue: transportation.

“The suburban lifestyle is terrible, due to car dependency, which leads to isolation, especially for seniors,” Boyles said. “A community can have services available, yes, but these services need to be in a walkable neighborhood. Why separate everything?”

In the end, the age-friendly initiative advocated by the Charlottesville Area Alliance and others is really a living-friendly initiative — one designed to make life better for everyone.

“The nomenclature does matter,” Snider said. “... The way we talk about this is very important. We’re basically talking about making it dignified to age, and reminding people that age is a lifespan issue that effects us all. ... We all start to age the day we are born.”

David McNair handles publicity, marketing, media relations and social media efforts for the Jefferson Area Board for Aging.

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