Age-Friendly Berkshires initiative aims to enrich life for growing senior population
PITTSFIELD — By the time you finish reading this article, you will be a little bit older.
It's nothing to be afraid of, just a fact of life. And it's this concept that's driving a group of more than 30 stakeholders to ramp up efforts this spring to defy the perceptions and misconceptions of what it means to be aging in the Berkshires.
"Whether you are 5 years old, 25, 50 or 75, everyone is getting older, all the time," said Bobbie Orsi, a registered nurse and certified dementia practitioner for Home Instead Senior Care in Pittsfield. "That's why having an age-friendly community works for everyone."
Orsi is the director of community relations for the Age-Friendly Berkshires Vision 2020 initiative, which was launched last year on the principle that the over-50 crowd is projected to be a majority in the Berkshires within 15 years.
Age-Friendly Berkshires is a five-year countywide effort to adopt resolutions, policies and practices across eight target areas of community life geared toward shaping a culture and resources that better support people of all ages.
The projects on tap not only address the typical issues of getting older — health care, downsized affordable housing, retirement planning — but also some energizing events and programs, including a series of "Aging in Place" forums, an "Age of Disruption Tour" visit by Dr. Bill Thomas, and "Senior Speed Dating," a new program for adults ages 70 and up.
"These programs aim to disrupt the ways people think about getting older and the way they think of themselves as seniors," Orsi said. "The media tends to label things like older people dating as 'cute.' It's not cute; it's who we are. ... People who are over the age of 60, they're still alive and vibrant people," she said.
Out of an estimated 130,000 residents of the Berkshires, adults over the age of 65 currently make up more than 20 percent of the population, compared to the 14 percent statewide. The over 50 age group now makes ups about half of the county's population, and by 2030, it's estimated that 60 percent of the Berkshire population will be over the age of 50.
Some 57,000 Berkshire residents and members of the baby boom generation, those born between 1946 and 1964, are heading toward retirement. A recent survey of more than 2,5000 respondents in this age group indicated they want and will need services and amenities that will help them age feeling engaged, empowered, active and appreciated.
But the survey said that many older adults don't feel like they're recognized and treated this way.
"Ageism is one of those invisible prejudices that people don't know they have," said Megan Whilden, executive director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of Berkshire Community College, a educational organizations that's designed to serve people over the age of 50. OLLI at BCC is also a partner in the Age-Friendly Berkshires initiative.
"Changing the perspective of everyone about aging is a huge plus for this initiative," Whilden said. "It's about seeing the older generation of the Berkshires as an asset, not a burden."
Orsi echoed those sentiments.
"People want to actively age, meaning to stay home and in their own community," she said. "Our work here is to enhance the lives of the people we know and we need the community to help grow support around them."
Communities in the Berkshires steadily have been coming together and moving forward on the issues relative to an aging population.
Last April, the city of Pittsfield adopted an age-friendly resolution to develop a community strategy.
North Adams also is exploring such a strategy, and it has also been re-evaluating the role and infrastructure of its senior center, said Mayor Richard Alcombright.
"We constantly talk, around the county, about our younger population and how to attract and retain young people and how we want to find more to come here and thrive here," he said. "That said, I don't think we can look any less hard about how we market ourselves toward seniors. They still have long and productive years ahead of them."
Adams Council on Aging Director Erica Girgenti has been actively involved in the formation of this initiative.
"We need to design a community that works for both youth and older adults and everyone in between," she said. "That way people will look at [the Berkshires] and say, this is a safe place for my kids and a safe place for me to age."
Back in June, the Age-Friendly Berkshires Vision 2020 project was accepted into the AARP World Health Organization's Global Age-Friendly Cities and Communities network. It also received a Tufts Health Plan Foundation grant to support the hiring of a full-time program manager to move this project forward.
That person is Celeste Roeller Harp, who holds a master's degree in of regional planning degree.
"People are living longer," Roeller Harp said. "This is first time we're seeing multiple generations living in retirement. We need to have a huge change in the way we take care of and view our older population."
Under the Age-Friendly initiative, the AARP/WHO leaders have identified what they refer to as "eight domains of livability that influence the quality of life of older adults:"
• Outdoor spaces and buildings
• Social participation
• Respect and social inclusion
• Civic participation and employment
• Communication and information
• Community support and health services
While task forces are currently being formed to address each of the eight domains, several stakeholders listed housing, transportation, and socialization as priority issues.
"We need to look at zoning reform and alternative ways to expand senior and affordable housing so when people want to downsize or decide to not age in place alone, that there is a multitude of options for living," said James J. Wilusz, executive director of public health for the Tri-Town Health Department of Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge.
He said his department are looking forward to working across sectors and the eight domains to help draft solutions.
"There are no borders in public health and we are all in this together," Wilusz said, "regarding of our expertise in different disciplines."
Roeller Harp said any individual or agency interested in participating in a task force should contact her.
"We want people from this age group to be the champions of this community," she said. "We want to hear from older people who are out and about and well-versed who can represent their cohort in the age bracket."
How to help ...
Contact Celeste Roeller Harp at Celeste.Harp@berkshirehisc.com or 413-442-0907.
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