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Supporting Baltimore's seniors

Op-ed: Baltimore's seniors have long supported you; now it's time to support them.

With over 100,000 Baltimoreans over the age of 60, we cannot create well-being in our city without also ensuring the health and wellness of our older adults. This includes supporting the ability of residents to age in their communities with choice, independence and dignity.

During listening tours I held across the city, I heard similar stories from Cherry Hill to Greenmount: Residents spoke about lack of resources for core programs, like those increasing access to food and transportation, and the burdensome process that they and their loved ones must navigate in order to determine the level of care best suited for them.

These issues are compounded by dramatic decreases in funding from the state. Beginning in 2013, the Maryland State Department of Aging reallocated funds to jurisdictions based on an area's share of the older population as a whole. While Baltimore City has fewer older adults than some jurisdictions, it has the largest proportion of those living in poverty — nearly 41 percent in the entire state.

This change in formula has had unfortunate impacts. In 2013 alone, Baltimore City experienced a loss of nearly $1 million. These cuts have resulted in reductions to services including senior center operations, guardianship and advocacy for individuals without family to care for them, and information and assistance services.

Despite ongoing challenges, under the leadership of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, we have taken strides to reset the course of health in our city and prioritize well-being for our seniors:

Together with city agencies and our partners at the Govans Ecumenical Development Corporation, we saved the Harford Senior Center from closure and preserved critical programming and services for older adults in northeast Baltimore. Meanwhile, we have re-launched the Waxter Senior Center in Mount Vernon as a venue for resources and respite for local caregivers, thanks in part to our Waxter Wisdom educational series and recent Senior Nutrition Expo.

To further support lifelong nutrition, we have: provided nearly 5,000 coupons to low income seniors to purchase fresh produce from farmers markets, arranged over 290,000 meals annually to seniors at nearly 60 sites to promote healthy eating and lively conversations, and delivered over 160,000 meals to home-bound seniors in partnership with Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland. During the unrest last year, we ensured that seniors had access to prescription medications, and we worked with city and state partners to set up a shuttle service and food delivery service.

In collaboration with community partners, we are taking aim at the leading cause of unintentional injury death among older adults by launching B'FRIEND, a citywide initiative that involves housing, social and medical interventions to reduce falls in older adults. We have also started Caregiver Corner, a community-based resource located in all 23 branches of Enoch Pratt Free Library that is a "one-stop shop" for caregivers.

These innovations, while critical, are not quick fixes. The work we have begun will require continued investment and intervention. Thankfully, we have exceptional partners across the city including dedicated members of our Commission on Aging. In April, after an extensive search, I appointed a new deputy commissioner to oversee the division on aging, Heang Tan. Ms. Tan's strong background in community health and proven commitment to older adults ensure that the well-being of our seniors is a crucial component of every citywide plan. This includes our forthcoming blueprint for health in the city, Healthy Baltimore 2020, where we pledge to develop a comprehensive senior health approach that includes a focus on wellness and aging in place.

We look forward to working with both current and future partners to protect and improve services while continuing to advocate for much needed funding. State Sen. Catherine Pugh, the Democratic nominee for Baltimore mayor, has been a longtime champion of our seniors in Annapolis and in recent months has pledged to create even more vibrant senior living communities in Baltimore.

Baltimore City's seniors have always been the backbone of our communities. They are our caregivers, teachers, counselors and everyday leaders who have supported so many others throughout the course of their lives. It's our turn to support them.

Dr. Leana Wen is the Baltimore City health commissioner. She can be reached at health.commissioner@baltimorecity.gov. Twitter: @DrLeanaWen and @BMore_Healthy.

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