Seniors voice concerns about aging as new plan takes shape

January 24, 2019

What concerns you most about aging?

It’s a question many don’t think about often or maybe prefer to avoid all together as it forces us to evaluate the inevitable.

It was also the first question asked to Flathead County seniors and others with familial ties to the aging community at a public meeting on Tuesday led by the Flathead County Area IX Agency on Aging.

One local senior, Donna Maddux, said she’s concerned about who in the community is the “voice” for older adults. Linda Walthers, who recently moved here from New England, said she’s concerned about a lacking support system after leaving most of her friends and family members.

Other concerns topping the list included coping with loss of spouses, lack of finances, memory loss and the struggle to find experienced, affordable caregivers. But overall, Jackie Jensen’s answer - “living independently and safely” - seemed to encompass more than four dozen concerns expressed over the course of the two-hour discussion.

The meeting was part of the agency’s crowd-sourcing effort to gather input on the area’s new plan on aging - a community guideline generated every four years by each of Montana’s 10 Agency on Aging organizations. The area plans are submitted to the Department of Health and Human Services to be compiled into one statewide plan on aging.

According to projections outlined in the current 2015 to 2019 plan, which is set to expire in September, the percentage of Flathead County residents aged 60 and older was expected to reach 26 percent by 2020.

But according to Flathead County Agency on Aging Director Lisa Sheppard, that number is already at 28 percent.

“We didn’t expect to hit this number for awhile,” Sheppard noted. “We are still experiencing a significant increase in demand for services.”

The demographic shift is described as “unprecedented and has far-reaching social and economic implications” in the current area plan.

According to Sheppard, because the older population in Flathead County continues to climb, a lot of areas of need and goals outlined in the current plan will carry over to the new one, and other organizations catering to older adults need to also be prepared for the shift.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m standing out there yelling ‘fire! fire!’ and no one’s listening,” Sheppard said. “We are trying to get everyone to understand what it means to have us all aging at once.”

The local Agency on Aging has worked over the years to address the nine areas of need outlined in the current plan.

For instance, the agency works with Meals on Wheels to deliver more than 80,000 meals a year, which has partially addressed the need for “increased capacity to provide meals.”

The agency has brought in staff dedicated to helping older adults understand what benefits are available to them and how to budget, which has started to address the need for “enhanced benefits counseling and education.”

And to the issue of “more flexible, affordable, accessible transportation,” new routes have been added to the Eagle Transit bus service.

Despite the changes, there is still work to be done by the agency and other departments.

For instance, many attendees expressed their concern over housing costs in Flathead County, where lack of affordable housing continues to outpace most of Montana. Recent county reports show about 32 percent of renters are living in poverty, or living on less than $20,000.

According to Sheppard, the high rental prices take a toll on vulnerable segments of communities, which includes seniors. The agency provides a document online with information on what housing is offered in Flathead County.

While attendees expressed many concerns over growing old, they were also asked to express what they loved most about it.

“We are hoping to change the conversation about aging,” Sheppard said to attendees. “There is always a lot of negative talk about aging and there are a lot of challenges, but there are a lot of positive aspects of growing older, too.”

Most said they like when others seek them out for advice. Some considered their ability to share years of wisdom with others “a gift.” Others said they appreciate having a flexible schedule and looking forward to the simple things, such as telling stories and playing cards.

Many extended their thanks for the department for creating a gathering space with the South Campus Building that houses the Agency on Aging, and bringing a sense of community to the Flathead where it had been previously lacking.

“I came here not knowing where to start, but because of this meeting alone, now I do,” Walthers said.

For more information on the Agency on Aging, go to www.flathead.mt.gov/aging or call 758-5730. The agency is located at 40 11th St. W. in Kalispell.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

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