Berkshire seniors confront challenges of aging
Beth VanNess enjoys occasional opportunities to stroll down to Chester Pond to leisurely immerse herself in a book amid picturesque scenery. That care-free feeling, however, represents only a momentary respite from the aging process.
VanNess is a 61-year-old struggling Realtor who is on disability because of Crohn's Disease and nerve damage in her feet. She said she is able to pay her bills but lives on a fixed income and faces significant health-care costs, transportation questions, and additional burdens that come with age.
VanNess isn't alone in the challenges -- and worries -- of being a senior citizen.
Twenty-five percent, or 33,740, of Berkshire County's residents are over age 60, according to the 2010 federal census. Nineteen percent of the population is over 65, putting the Berkshires second among the state's 14 counties in that category. (Barnstable is first at 25.4 percent.)
Across Berkshire County, nine towns are expected to double their over-65 population from 2000 to 2020, according to the state Executive Office of Elder Affairs. Among those nine towns is Becket, where VanNess lives.
Even with Medicaid reducing her medical expenses, balancing her monthly bills is a high-wire act, according to VanNess, who says she routinely takes about eight prescription drugs a day.
VanNess' primary income is the $1,200 a month she receives from Social Security disability.
"It's too easy to become depressed," said VanNess, a single mother who raised two children.
In surveys of cities and towns across the state, Jan Mutchler, a professor at the UMass-Boston Gerontology Institute, said there's a common feeling among seniors.
"I hear a lot of worry," Mutchler said. "[For the most part] they're not disadvantaged communities -- they are people who have lived a secured lifestyle for their whole life" and now are concerned about retirement.
‘You run out of money'
The senior citizens Mutchler is referring to have accumulated enough wealth to own their own car and home, but on a recent afternoon, a chorus of seniors stated their transportation and housing needs at Becket Town Hall.
"When you reach a certain age, you can't maintain it," Becket resident Claire Daigle, 81, said about her home. "You need to hire somebody, and then you run out of money."
Daigle would have a difficult time living in her home without the help of her husband. Daigle, who has diabetes, has become increasingly dependent on him to change her oxygen tanks for a respiratory condition and do basic chores.
VanNess, meanwhile, said she drives to Pittsfield twice a week for medical appointments, but she prefers other modes of travel because of the nerve damage in her feet. She has advocated for the town to allocate senior transportation funding, which is being reviewed by Becket's Finance Committee.
"There are over 500 seniors [in Becket], and there are more turning [older] all the time with medical issues, and we are so far from Pittsfield" and other larger cities and towns, VanNess said.
When discussing the growing senior population, town and health officials most often cite health-care costs and accessibility, economic security and transportation needs as the primary concerns across the county.
And then there's housing. The demand for homes for seniors to move into has been relatively steady over the past decade, with no "substantial uptick" in requests, according to Brad Gordon, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Housing Authority, which provides living assistance to people in need.
But he cautioned the steady demand could give communities -- especially some of the county's more rural ones -- "a false sense of their capacity to handle future demand" from the Baby Boomers, who were born between 1946 and 1964.
"My guess is that the demand will be increasing over the next five years, but the needs for this population will become much more substantial as this generation enters their 80s, which will be in about the next decade," Gordon said in an email.
In living their daily lives, there also are additional senior needs.
The 200-employee, Lenox-based nonprofit Porchlight Visiting Nurse Association offers an array of services that showcase how complex a senior's life can be.
The organization, which serves the entire county and used to be known as the Lee Regional Visiting Nurse Association, offers home care, home modification to ensure safety, preventative care services, and certified health aides who can reconcile pharmaceutical needs.
"The private-pay business has exploded [for home aid companions]," said Porchlight CEO Holly Chaffee, who said her services primarily serve patients in their 80s. "There's an increased number of people who will pay for the care or need the care."
About 6 percent of Berkshire County residents are 80 or older, and the cost of Porchlight's services varies depending on the seniors' health-care needs and insurance plans.
Short-term services for an acute illness are covered for homebound patients with Medicare, but many other services offered by Porchlight can cost private funds, according to a company representative.
For example, a Porchlight home health aide who assists with personal care could cost $25 an hour.
As Porchlight and other institutions throughout Berkshire County know, a growing elderly population generates new demands.
Dr. Seetha Muthavarapu, who specializes in geriatrics at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, said prescription drugs need to be carefully monitored by doctors because as seniors age, they might need to alter their dosages or stop taking some drugs altogether because their bodies are changing.
Muthavarapu said the average senior between 65 and 74 has five prescriptions, while others take as many as 15 for everything from high cholesterol to weight control.
William DeMarco, who oversees the emergency care department at Berkshire Medical Center, said geriatric patients represent a "large portion" of hospital admissions. They are rushed into the hospital with heart attacks, pneumonia, a change in their mental state, or broken hips and knees because of balance issues.
And insurance always is a factor.
"For most of our seniors, [Medicare] is everything," DeMarco said. "That is the mainstay of their health care."
Mutchler, from the UMass Gerontology Institute, worked with colleagues to develop a tool that outlines how much money a 65-or-older senior needs annually to cover living expenses, including mortgage or rent, utilities and food.
The tool, the National Elder Economic Security Standard Index, said the average senior needs $22,164 to $29,472 a year, or about $10,000 a year more than what Social Security provides.
An average couple needs $34,032 to $41,340, according to the index.
Depending on whether someone retires with a pension or savings, income can vary, but according to figures collected by the Census Bureau in 2011, the average income for retired individuals in Berkshire County was $22,399.
Jason LaBelle, a financial adviser in the Pittsfield office of Edward Jones Investments, said it's important for seniors to learn how to maximize their funds by investing.
"I have seen people with $200,000, and that is more than enough, and some with $1 million, and that's not enough," LaBelle said.
He said preparation for retirement is key, but many challenges can't be anticipated. When asked what government officials can do to help the senior population, the continuance of Medicare and Social Security are consistently mentioned as top priorities by Mutchler, BMC officials and county officials.
John Lutz, the director of Elder Services of Berkshire County, said a growing senior population will require more focused attention on preventative care to avoid future costly needs. He said that care will involve money that currently isn't available.
"I think it's an evolving area of discussion," Lutz said. "There hasn't been enough time to see the full impact."
To reach John Sakata:
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On Twitter: @jsakata
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