How good are programs for the elderly if the persons they are intented to reach do not know about the programs or believe it is too difficult to participate?
Montgomery County has asked this question and has taken steps to overcome any shortcomings the question implies.
The issue came up last summer when the results of a study, conducted by the Rockville research firm of Westat, Inc., became known. One major finding pointed a critical factor in the life of many elderly persons: "Isolation is the most crucial problem facing the elderly in the county, and this has the most negative effect on the elders' life satisfaction."
The study also concluded that loneliness and isolation occur most frequently among older and poorer Americans, although by no means limited to one economic group.
In reponse to the findings, the FY 78 Area Plan for Programs on Aging called for an Outreach Program to "locate the isolated elderly, and inform them of the services, benefits and opportunities availbale."
The program, directed by Suzanne Wilbur, is underway, with eight persons hired as field workers under a Comprehensive Employment and Training Act grant.
Four weeks of training, which preceded the beginning of the program, focused on developing interviewing skills and acquiring knowledge about programs and services available to the elderly.
Representatives fo various agencies and programs participated in the training sesssions to acquaint Outreach workers with such items as Social Security provisions, Supplemental Security Income, Meals on Wheels, nutrition programs, food stamp regulations, any other matters that could be helpful to isolated elderly persons.
Wilbur cited the case fo one woman as a way the Outreach program could help elderly persons.
The woman, in her mid-60s, had been alone,isolated in her apartment, since her husband died about four years ago. She did not drive, so the only regular outing was a weekly trip by taxi to the grocery.
Through the efforts fo an Outreach w rker, the woman has changed her life style. She has been on several short trips provided especially for the elderly; she has become part of the "food and fun" nutrition program, and she now has a Metor discount card enabling her to take advantage of public transportation at a reduced cost. The Outreach staff looks forward to the time when the woman, once almost totally isolated, will use her Metro card for regular visits to a senior citizens center, gaining the additional benefits of participation in center activities.
So far, according to Wilbur, about 2,000 older persons have been contacted, and of these, 200 to 300 who neede a helping hand were served in one way or another by Outreach workers.
It seems to have taken dedication and imagination to fulfill the mission of the program. Field staff members have "offices," a bit of space in local churches, nursing homes or any available place in the communities where they work. But most workers spend their time inthe communities, making the offices just a staging area.
Fiesld workers sometimes go door-to-door to find needy elderly or to get leads for finding them. The usual approach to apartment dwellers is to ask the manager and follow up any leads. Literature outlining the services available and a number to call for further information is placed in various locations, including local drug stores or groceries.
Some important discoveries have come from the Outreach work so far. There is confirmation that many elderly persons do not know what their county is prepared to do for them. Some of the persons do not read a newspaper regularly, or watch TV or even listen to a radio.
Another interesting finding is that small towns and communities away from the metropolitan area have a fairly effective network for checking on and helping isolated elderly. As Wilbur observed, "Some elderly in lower-county high-rise apartments may be more lonely than some in the isolated up-county areas."
Outreach workers also have found that middle-class people, who ordinarily have not used social services, seem to be least awzre of what is available. Discoveries like these should prove invaluable to the Division of Elder Affairs in carrying out its mandate to foster the well-being of the county's elderly residents.
The Outreach Porgram has enough funds to continue until June, 1978. Individuals who know of isolated elderly persons or who themselves could use benefits available to them should call the Outreach office, 273-1057.