Windsor moves to address isolation of older rural residents
Communities that are already part of the Northern Hilltowns Consortium of Councils on Aging will gather Monday to discuss accepting Windsor as their eighth member.
Officials in Windsor eager to tap into programs that help residents of Western Massachusetts hilltowns remain at home as they grow older.
"It's all for outreach," said Janet Sadlo, the Select Board member who led efforts to affiliate with the consortium, based in the Hampshire County town of Chesterfield.
"It's specifically to cut down on isolation," she said. "What can we do to keep them from depression and all the issues that go along with isolation? That's the deep purpose."
The step comes as other communities in the Berkshires work to make it easier, and healthier, for older people to remain in their homes as they age.
As of this week, nine communities have approved "Age Friendly" resolutions. Berkshire County is aging faster than most areas in the state, with more than half of its residents over age 50. The communities are Adams, Cheshire, Dalton, Hinsdale, Lanesborough, Lenox, North Adams, Pittsfield and Sheffield.
Peg McDonough, of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said isolation remains a particular concern for residents in sparsely settled towns. "That is one of the challenges associated with aging in a rural community. It's harder to physically check on someone and it requires a different strategy," she said.
Windsor, with a population of 857, has 260 residents age 60 or older, according to research by Town Clerk Madeline Scully. The town's 449 single-family dwellings are spread out over 35 square miles.
Sadlo said the idea of joining the consortium arose late in 2018, in part because the group has a reputation of finding ways to engage older people — including those not inclined, or able, to get themselves to activities at community centers.
The program is overseen by Jan Gibeau, director of the Chesterfield Council on Aging. Gibeau said she supports accepting Windsor into the consortium, but the group will want to confirm it can secure additional funding to cover costs related to a new member. "That's still a work in progress," she said.
Sadlo said the Windsor Select Board is poised to vote on joining the three-year-old group, once invited to do so.
Kim Tobin, chair of the Select Board, said that joining the regional group can connect Windsor residents with existing services. "We can just put that in place here," Tobin said.
Current members of the consortium are Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen, Plainfield Westhampton, Williamsburg and Worthington.
By joining, Windsor is expected to be able to tap into the Service Incentive Grant Program overseen by the Massachusetts Councils on Aging. Based on the number of residents 60 or older, Windsor would be eligible for roughly $3,120.
That money would come in addition to the $6,000 in funding the town receives through a different state budget line item, according to a recent fact sheet prepared by David P. Stevens, chief of the Massachusetts Councils on Aging.
At a community meeting Dec. 17, Windsor residents asked whether joining the consortium would eat into that source of money. In fact, the town has not always found ways to use the available funds. "Unfortunately, we've been leaving it on the table as it is," Sadlo said.
As part of its outreach, the consortium produces a regional newsletter. If it joins, Windsor events for older residents would be listed on a separate page.
Gibeau said she believes the newsletter helps bring people out. "I can see a difference in some people coming to activities they haven't been to before," she said. "People want better access to information ... sharing what's going on in each of the towns. People get to pick and choose where they want to go. It's very, very useful."
Combating isolation is a top goal for the consortium, Gibeau said. "Part of rural life is you're not as visible to people," she said.
Much of the outreach in small towns comes through trusted local institutions, including programs shaped by individual councils on aging. "The churches play a really important role. The idea of reaching out has a personal touch to it," Gibeau said.
Meantime, Windsor is also working to shore up its Council on Aging, after recent resignations depleted its ranks to two — Marcus Webb and Peter Menard. The panel normally has seven members.
People who have left the council recently include James Bailey, Patricia Beaulieu, John Garcia, Barbara Giusto, Paul Hoag and Patricia Walker.
At December's community meeting in Town Hall, officials made it clear the council needs new blood.
"We need some younger olders," Select Board member Doug McNally joked.
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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