By Rose Hoban
Afternoons at the Robert and Pearl Seymour Center in Chapel Hill are punctuated by the sound of ping pong and pool balls clacking around. An especially long ping pong volley can arouse whoops and applause from the folks who stick around after lunch and watch the games.
“If I had to crawl on my hands and knees to get here, I would,” said Joe Acciarito, a recent transplant from Brooklyn who comes to the center whenever it’s open. “I’ve got everything I need over here.”
The Seymour Center, opened five years ago to serve seniors in southern Orange County, is emblematic of the efforts North Carolina’s counties are starting to make to accommodate a rising flood of older residents.
The statistics are truly striking. According to the North Carolina Division of Aging and Adult Services, by 2025, the state’s aging population will double, and one-in-four state residents will be over the age of 60. By then, 85 out of North Carolina’s 100 counties will have more people over the age of 60 than under the age of 17.
That means that the state has to get ready said Dennis Streets, head of the Division of Aging and Adult Services. “Counties, that provide the bulk of human services to many of their residents, really need to get ready.”
“I think there’s a lot of good things going on at the state and local level, but there’s a heck of a lot more that needs to go on,” he said.
What’s in it for me?
Streets said many counties are making moves, but Orange County is the ‘poster child’ for what he thinks can happen.
Orange County officials are finalizing parts of their new Master Aging Plan, a five-year plan designed to help county managers make decisions to help them deal with the changing demographic. The 40-page draft document sets goals on issues ranging from transportation to affordable housing to how to help seniors learn about supports they can tap into to ‘age in place’ successfully.
The plan has tasks for almost every county department from the Board of Commissioners to the Planning Department. But transportation was the first thing mentioned by everyone questioned about the plan at the Seymour Center one afternoon this week.
“I”m concerned about the 80 percent of people who will not be part of the wonderful aging campuses like Carroll Woods,” said Hank Maiden, referring a high-end retirement community in Chapel Hill. “Many of them are friends of mine.”
Maiden attended several of the meetings to give his input on the plan. A retired educator in his 80s, Maiden likes the parts of the plan that focus on walkability in communities, and on providing better transportation options, issues he said cut across all the generations.
“Walkability in communities, that resonates with the millennials and their parents as well as us,” said Maiden. He doesn’t have a car, and gets around by walking, biking and taking the bus.
At one meeting at the Central Orange Senior Center in Hillsborough, he leveled a sharp critique at EZ RIder, the paratransit service available to seniors in Chapel Hill.
“I hitchhiked up here [to Hillsborough] on an EZ Rider, otherwise, you have to sign up two weeks ahead,” he said. “I told the driver I was helping out another passenger and got on with him. That’s how I was able to get here on time.”
Urban/ rural divide
Maiden had access to EZ RIder. But the seniors in more rural parts of the county aren’t as advantaged, said Mary Fraser, who co-chaired the planning process.
“One of the comments from the public hearings was, ‘there’s Chapel Hill and then there’s the rest of the county.’ And that’s true,” Fraser said.
“Particularly in northern parts of the county, older adults in the rural areas don’t always have access to computers, to the internet, even knowing what options are available is a challenge,” Fraser said. “We know that there are lots of frail older people who live alone in rural areas and we don’t even know where they all are. They’ve lived on these homesteads and farms for generations and want to continue living there, but the challenges are huge.”
Bobbie Gray Roberts, Sr., 87, was shooting pool with Maiden at the Seymour Center one afternoon this week. He said being able to get to the center is essential to his well-being.
“You need it to keep in touch with the world around you,” Roberts said. “Watching TV gets boring fast. And that’s what I do if I can’t get here.”
Orange County getting out ahead
Over the course of several months this winter, Janice Tyler gathered small groups at a series of public meetings in all parts of Orange County to get feedback on the aging plan.
“I’m like a broken record at department head meetings… talking about this plan,” said Tyler, who heads the county’s Department of Aging.
It’s the third time Orange County has created a Master Aging Plan, and Tyler said this time around, they were anxious to get input from as many people as possible.
Tyler got help from a handful of UNC graduate students who worked with her on the plan as their capstone project, instead of writing a masters thesis.
“None of us really knew about aging,” said Laura Major, one of the students. “But then Janice told us these crazy statistics. We’d heard about how the population as a whole was aging, but nothing like what Janice described. We were blown away by the scope of the issues.”
Two students from the school of public health helped out last summer. They surveyed all the county departments about their plans and needs, and also did focus groups in all of the county’s seven townships.
Major and other students helped out during the academic year.
“The students wanted to do more than what we ever dreamed we would have them do,” Tyler said. “For example, they lead the way on the public comment period.”
Tyler acknowledges that having students gives her an advantage in the planning process over other counties in the state that are more thinly staffed than Orange County.
“There are many of these departments around the state that have a handful of employees and the department director is doing the senior center, and serving lunch, and is multi-tasking and can’t even think about creating a vision, “Tyler said.
Dennis Streets said he’d like to see students from other parts of the state’s university system get involved in helping more counties through their planning process.
“I’m wondering if students who are going to UNC or to East Carolina, if their curriculum was such that they could do some placement that could extend back into their home communities,” Streets said. “The more we can promote that connection with those service learning projects, the better.”
As a way of helping out the rest of the state, Tyler posted the steps she took to create the plan on the county’s website. She also put up documents supporting the plan and the draft plan itself.
“For many of them [in other counties] it’s overwhelming to think of how to get started. So, you don’t have to do everything we did… here’s a template,” she said.
The plan has also gotten notice at higher levels of government. Governor Bev Perdue asked Tyler and her team to give a presentation to the Governor’s Advisory Council on what the state can do to support counties trying to plan for more seniors.
One of Perdue’s early acts as governor was to have every state department designate an employee as an aging liaison to coordinate planning for more seniors across state government. Tyler’s student helpers adapted a survey used by state departments to ask Orange County managers about their plans for having more older constituents and older workers.
“That got them started thinking about how ready they were going to be for this change,” said Mary Fraser, who co-chaired the master aging plan with Tyler. “It’s not just that the population is getting older, but the workforce. And people are wanting to stay in the workforces longer and needing to, too.”