Berkshires called leader of 'age friendly' movement

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PITTSFIELD — Few know the term, but most recognize the "age-friendly" spirit.

It moves a bank teller, sniffing a scam, to quiz a customer about that grandchild who is supposedly in trouble.

It's alive when a woman with dementia gets a hug at her favorite restaurant. And it travels with elders handing out reflective vests after a fatal accident.

All these actual Berkshires moments define a movement that paused Tuesday for a victory lap of sorts — then got on with its mission.

After three years of prep work and study, proponents and leaders of the Age Friendly Berkshires project gathered in a room flooded with light at the Berkshire Hills Country Club, as snowflakes fell over a drained swimming pool.

Over three hours, more than 75 people caught up on this countywide effort, whose goal is to improve the quality of life not only for older people, but for everyone. They left propelled by encouragement from several statewide experts.

"You guys are visionaries. You were doing this work before others came on board," said Alice Bonner, secretary of the Executive Office of Elder Affairs. "We are truly standing on your shoulders."

Berkshire County, with a median age of 44, already is older, on average, than any other area of the state, except for Cape Cod. The country's median age is 36.

By 2020, people older than 65 will make up 20 percent of residents in all but two municipalities in Berkshire County, according to the Donahue Institute of the University of Massachusetts.

By 2030, people older than 50 will constitute 60 percent of the population in most Berkshire County communities.

Bonner described efforts underway across the state to address problems that can impair an older person's ability to remain a member of society. Steps to address gaps in housing and transportation are important, Bonner said, because they seek to extend social justice to residents who deserve to remain included in public life.

Pacing the front of the room with a wireless mic, Bonner said her office and a panel appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker are exploring a "big mix" of ways to improve conditions for older residents.

That includes helping them compete for jobs after the traditional age of retirement, whether for personal or economic reasons.

Older workers tend to be punctual, skilled, not miss work and have a good sense of customer service, she said. But candidates face bias.

"This is one of the places where we really see ageism being a problem," Bonner said.

If part of her job Tuesday was to issue a pep talk, Bonner was game.

"I'm done talking about this," she said, suggesting that the dozens listening need to get on with the work. "It's been a while."

Peg McDonough, a staff member of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, led listeners through a checklist of ways they can get involved, from lobbying their city and town officials to embrace Age Friendly Berkshires to serving with groups across the region dedicated to the cause.

She apologized for the time it took to get to Tuesday's official launch, after early work by Bobbie Orsi, director of community relations at Home Instead Senior Care. Orsi listened from a table Tuesday, later rising to help accept an award from the state chapter of AARP.

"It's a big undertaking," McDonough said, "and worth the time spent."

The commission's work was aided by two grants from the Tufts Health Plan Foundation worth nearly $280,000.

Nora Moreno Cargie, the foundation's president, said that even as it moves to a more public phase, Age Friendly Berkshires has notched accomplishments.

"The reason it is working here in the Berkshires is that you are all at the table," she told the group, which included leaders of councils on aging and elder affairs groups around the region. "What we know is, we can't do this work alone."

Mike Festa, state director for the AARP, said similar efforts are advancing across Massachusetts, making it a model.

"There is no state that is ahead of the curve on Age Friendly work as is Massachusetts," Festa said. "The movement has caught on in Massachusetts."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.

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