'Age Friendly Berkshires' campaign preps for rising tide of elders
PITTSFIELD — By 2030, more people in the United States will be over 65 than under 18, a change fueled by the 10,000 baby boomers who turn 65 every day in this country.
But in Berkshire County, no crystal ball is needed to glimpse what's been called the "silver tsunami." The county crossed that demographic threshold in 2012, lending urgency to a project, Age Friendly Berkshires, which plans to redouble its outreach this year.
On April 17, the state official in charge of aging issues will help mark renewal of this public-private and grassroots campaign to make life easier for elders in the region — and for others as well.
"It really works for the rest of us in between," said Laura Kittross, manager of the public health program for the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. "It makes the community more livable for everyone."
Alice Bonner, secretary of the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, will join with project allies for this month's launch. Bonner is the keynote speaker for an event that starts at 8:30 a.m. April 17 at the Berkshire Hills Country Club at 500 Benedict Road in Pittsfield. The event is free but registration is required. To sign up, visit afberkshires.eventbrite.com.
The three-hour session will provide updates from people already working on aspects of the drive.
Though the broad goals of Age Friendly Berkshires were announced in 2016, its full vision, and map for change, was not articulated until a November publication.
Aided now by Peg McDonough, a commission staffer, the project is pushing on many fronts with local agency partners to fix stumbling blocks for elders — whether related to housing, jobs, transportation or a range of other issues.
The words "well-designed" and "livable" come up a lot when people around the world, including officials with the World Health Organization, talk about what makes a place "age friendly."
"An Age Friendly community enables people of all ages to actively participate in community activities and treats everyone with respect, regardless of their age," the November report says. "It is a place that makes it easy for older people to stay connected to people that are important to them."
McDonough, who joined the commission in September, says she is working to help elders in the county retain access to housing and transportation, be able to work and contribute to the public good in their cities or towns and receive community support and respect.
An age-friendly landscape ranges from attitudes to objects. For instance, a region is "age friendly" if it promotes use of street signs that can be read by people with weak vision, or ensures that doors on public buildings are not too heavy to open.
"It's important that we're changing attitudes as well as having that button that opens the door," Kittross said.
McDonough adds, "That attitude adjustment is not going to happen overnight."
Berkshire County, with a median age of 44, is already older, on average, than any other area of the state except for Cape Cod. The country's median age is 36.
The Donahue Institute of the University of Massachusetts reports that by 2020, people over age 65 will make up 20 percent of residents in all but two municipalities in the county — and some of those towns will have more than 40 percent of their residents over 65. By 2030, in most county communities people over age 50 will constitute 60 percent of the population.
With those kinds of forecasts as a backdrop, people in the region, led by Bobbie Orsi, director of community relations at Home Instead Senior Care, began working in 2014 on ways to influence how the region can be more accommodating to the needs of elders.
Nearly 2,500 people answered a survey in 2015 that moved the project forward, aided initially by a two-year grant of nearly $180,000 from the Tufts Health Plan Foundation. A grant was renewed last June by Tufts to conduct the outreach work that begins in earnest this month.
Kittross and McDonough say the goals are ambitious and wide-ranging — and not widely understood, despite backing from groups like the AARP.
"People still don't know what it is," Kittross said of the project. "We need to continue to get word out there. It's a huge undertaking."
A key part of that undertaking is to foster collaboration and connection within the region, the women say.
They hope to arrange a job fair, for instance, that can connect employers with older workers.
"There is a definite stigma attached to older workers," McDonough said.
Other people handling specific aspects of the campaign include: Megan Whilden, executive director of Osher Lifetime Learning Institute civic engagement; Roger Gutwillig, of the Active Agers Advisory Council, communication; Dominica D'Avella, of I.D.E.A.L. Health & Wellness Solutions, community support and health service; Van Ellet of the Williamstown Housing Committee, housing; Melissa Provencher with the planning commission, outdoor spaces and public buildings; Vicky Smith, respect and social inclusion; Beryl Jolly, executive director of the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, social participation; and Robert James, a volunteer with Pittsfield Community Legal Services, transportation.
Other participants have included Erica Girgenti, executive director of the Adams Council on Aging; John Lutz, executive director of Elder Services of Berkshire County; Valerie Spain, manager of AARP's Age Friendly Network in Massachusetts; Vin Marinaro, executive director of the Pittsfield senior center; and Brian O'Grady, executive director of the Williamstown Council on Aging.
For more information on the project, visit berkshireplanning.org/projects/age-friendly-county.
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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