America is getting older fast: The number of Americans older than 65 is expected to nearly double by 2050, when they will make up more than 20 percent of the population. But in dozens of communities, the older population has already passed that demographic milestone. And local governments in these vanguard communities have begun to make adjustments. ¶ “With growth, there are going to come things that you have to deal with,” said William Price, a member of the recently formed Senior Commission in Aiken, S.C. “Individuals are living longer, and we certainly have to prepare for that.” ¶ Some lessons learned:
An older population means a busier ambulance squad, with many calls related to falls and shortness of breath. Mike Forte, the fire chief in Mayfield Heights, Ohio (where 23.8 percent of the population is older than 65), says his staff has learned to ask which medications patients take and when they last saw their doctors. “We have to get a wide range of training,” says Tim Bynane, a 27-year fire department veteran. “We’re good with the elderly stuff because that’s our area’s specialty.”
Aiken (21.9 percent older than 65) started providing a service called Smart 911 earlier this year. Residents can opt to link their phone numbers with personal information — such as medications taken and family contact numbers — which displays on a 911 dispatcher’s monitor when someone calls for help. “Let’s say you call us from your home phone,” says Pete Frommer, director of Aiken’s Public Safety Department. “You tell us what your emergency is, but we have that information on a side screen that can help responders.”
The department also uses something called Project Lifesaver, a service growing in popularity nationally, which provides people who have dementia with bracelets that continuously transmit their location via GPS technology. Last winter, this system helped police find an 86-year-old man who had wandered barefoot into the woods in 30-degree weather.
In Mayfield, Ohio (23.8 percent over age 65), the large number of seniors who no longer drive threatened to swamp a program offering $3 rides for older people to doctor’s offices, shopping and the like. Says Stacey O’Brien, director of the Tri-City Consortium on Aging, “The demand is far greater than we anticipated.” After analyzing people’s travel patterns and consulting with the managers of complexes with high senior populations, the consortium is making plans to move away from what has essentially been a taxi system and toward a scheduled shuttle that would run a loop among set locations such as grocery stores and medical facilities.
Aiken seniors can earn $2.65 an hour through a federally funded program, Foster Grandparents, by helping students read and by chaperoning summer recreation trips. “It keeps me busy, it keeps me going, and active, and driving, and all those things,” says one participant, Liliane Crockett, 81. “If I can touch any child’s life, that’s one reason that I’m here.”
In many areas, zoning restrictions make “mother-in-law” additions or apartments illegal. Wethersfield, Conn. (20.7 percent over age 65), is among the towns amending those laws to enable families to build so-called accessory additions. “If you do it properly and establish some standards, in most cases you would never know that your neighbor’s house has an in-law apartment, because it blends in,” says Peter Gillespie, director of Wethersfield’s planning department.
Because caring for parents, spouses or other relatives can be stressful and demanding, some towns provide respite programs at local community centers, where older adults who need constant care can spend a few hours.
In Kerrville, Tex. (26.3 percent over age 65), the Dietert Center sponsors the Take Five Club. Staffed by a volunteer and an employee, it frees caregivers for four hours.
“Caregiver burnout is very real,” says club coordinator Mary Amburn. “We always recommend that you have something that is yours. You either play Bunco or dominoes or you go eat with somebody, or if you want to, go home and just read a good book.”
Pandolfo is a News21 fellow at the Columbia University Graduate School of Jorurnalism. Fellows Abbey Adkison, Lea Khayata and Saskia deRothschild contributed reporting.