City eyes ‘aging in place’ as older population grows

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In drafting a roadmap for Wilmington’s future, planners incorporated the needs of the city’s older residents, who represent a growing segment of the population. One of the themes running throughout the proposed long-range plan is the concept of “aging in place” — that is, creating a city that allows older adults to remain active, healthy and, to the extent possible, in their own homes.

Christine Hughes, the senior city planner who coordinated the development of the comprehensive plan, said aging in place in Wilmington requires:

— Housing designs that accommodate changing access needs and that remain affordable throughout a person’s lifetime.

— Safe, affordable transportation alternatives for people who no longer drive but who want to remain socially active.

— Access to commonly used services, such as medical professionals, pharmacies, parks and retail stores. The proposed long-range plan encourages mixed-use developments that put popular destinations within residential neighborhoods.

— Social considerations that allow seniors to remain active and engaged.

“Really, these are things that all of us want,” Hughes said in an email outlining the main aging-related points in the plan. “The young and the old have the most challenges, due in large part to income and mobility limitations. But a city that is well-designed for a child or a senior is a city that is well-designed.”

More than 15 percent of New Hanover County’s population is 65 or older, and the number will continue to grow as baby boomers retire. Many of those residents are transplants, or their children may have moved away to pursue employment. That leaves a sizable number of people with little or no support network.

Many also have limited retirement funds that must be managed in anticipation of a potentially long life after work. Meanwhile, services that can help people get around and stay in their homes can be scarce.

As they age, many people require home care and other services to live independently. Because of limited funding, those services often have a waiting list, said Brenda “Ben” Brow, manager of the New Hanover County Senior Resource Center. The list for home-delivered meals, for example, is about 130, she said. Help with chores and daily living can help people stay at home, Brow said, but in most cases they are covered only for residents on Medicaid.

One of the most important needs for maintaining independence is reliable, affordable transportation. The decision to stop driving may make it more difficult to be active and social — and that can take a toll on mental and physical health.

But aside from the bus, which has limited routes, and pickup for medical visits, there aren’t many choices.

Yet daily activities such as grocery shopping, hair appointments, library visits or trips to the park help keep older adults engaged, she said. Not being able to get out has can have a profound effect.

“You’ve been going to those sales all your life, and now you can’t go,” Brow said.

The Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority recently obtained federal funding to help add options for senior citizens, and a relatively young program already provides some alternatives in the downtown-area neighborhoods. Aptly named Aging in Place, the service fills the need for routine transit for older adults in one part of town.

Transportation is but one aspect. The ability to remain active is important also. The senior center offers a place for residents 60 and older to congregate, socialize, exercise, take classes and find volunteer jobs to help keep them engaged in the community, said Amber Smith, who will take over Brow’s position when the latter retires.

People at the senior center don’t just sit around. One recent Wednesday morning, a group of women trained with hand weights in one room, while a woman on a treadmill sang unabashedly to the tunes flowing into her earbuds. Several groups were engrossed in highly competitive card games, and a trio of pool sharks vied for bragging rights in the game room.

And most Fridays, Jones said, the Wii players get a little rowdy.

Beyond providing a gathering place, the center also has a wealth of information about options for living independently as they age. The importance of planning cannot be overemphasized, said Jane Jones, director of the Area Agency on Aging, part of the Cape Fear Council of Governments.

What will they do if they become ill, disabled, or a spouse dies? Can they afford to retrofit their homes to be more accessible as they age? Do they have a network of family or friends who can be with them if they are ill, or recovering from a surgical procedure? If not, what are their alternatives?

The Association of Retired Persons also has a partnership with the University of North Carolina Wilmington to address some of those concerns, and the need will be even greater as the population ages, Jones said.

“I don’t think it is insurmountable,” Jones said. “We are just going to have to look at what the needs are and find ways to meet them.”

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