Southern Maryland works to keep up with influx of senior citizens

June 16, 2011

Southern Maryland counties are devoting a lot of attention to their senior citizens, and with good reason: The future of the state’s elderly lies predominantly in their territory.

A 2005 study by the U.S. Census and Maryland Department of Planning predicted that the bay-side counties will have the largest increase in adult residents 60 and older by 2030. Calvert and Charles counties are predicted to experience a 240 percent growth (compared with Baltimore City’s 25 percent), and St. Mary’s County will lead the state with a nearly 260 percent increase, according to the study.

“Addressing this rapidly increasing population is our biggest challenge,” said Lori Jennings-Harris, director of St. Mary’s Department of Aging. “Southern Maryland is somewhat unique in the sense that we have a population of native residents who ‘age in place,’ as well as a large influx of retirement-age people who migrate in from other areas.”

She cited the naval base, the Chesapeake Bay and the area’s quality of life as reasons Southern Maryland attracts retirees.

St. Mary’s officials’ priority is to keep residents in their homes as long as possible, she said.

“Besides the fact that it is more cost-effective, most people want to stay at home,” Jennings-Harris said. “We want to help make this possible by keeping them active and vibrant members of the community.”

To heighten community involvement, the St. Mary’s office — much like the offices in Calvert and Charles — provides an array of programs and services for the elderly, including painting classes, book discussions and fitness classes at the senior centers. There is also a community service group, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, which gives residents 55 and older the opportunity to help others.

Calvert County officials identify similar challenges for their seniors — transportation and affordable housing — but their main focus is preparing aging residents for the future.

“We really feel like planning is important,” said Susan Justice, division chief for Calvert’s aging office. “Whether they’re planning for retirement, for the end of life, or just need assistance organizing their wills and assets, we want to help them take care of these things.”

Calvert’s aging office held a seminar this year called Elder Law and Finance Day to help educate seniors on financial management options.

“We had a lot of success with that,” Justice said, “So, in the fall, we’ll be hosting a series of similar events.”

Charles officials said they are focusing less on new programs and more on improving existing neighborhoods and services to better suit aging residents. Improvements include increasing mobile medical services, walkable sidewalks and wheelchair-accessible areas.

“Some of our older neighborhoods are becoming naturally occurring retirement communities,” said Dina Barclay, chief of aging and senior programs in Charles County. “They’re essentially little pockets that, unintentionally over time, have become clusters of seniors. We’re looking to revitalize these older neighborhoods with services” for the elderly.

Barclay said she would like to encourage doctors to make weekly home visits to these communities.

Despite having a collective awareness of the increasing number of seniors, Southern Maryland officials are most concerned about funding.

“As our population rapidly increases, the funding has been slow to catch up,” Barclay said. “So we have a lot of great programs, and unfortunately, a lot of wait lists.”

Justice said: “Progress takes time and funding. We’re hopeful.”

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