One in four Baltimore County residents will be a senior citizen by 2020, according to projections from the Baltimore County Department of Aging. That’s going to require the county to adjust its priorities if it wants to best serve those who live here.

Baltimore County is already age-friendly, said Laura Riley, director of the Department of Aging. But, “We could be more age-friendly,” she added.

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For example, the county has a deficit of low-cost housing for seniors and could do with more transportation options for those who might no longer have drivers licenses, Riley said.

In part to illustrate the important of developing better senior services and to draw attention to some of the less-often addressed issues facing the elderly, Baltimore County this year observed “No Senior Eats Alone" Day on Sept. 12. One of the main focuses was avoiding social isolation, which can have real health consequences, according to experts.

Each of the county’s 20 senior centers hosted a free meal for members and nonmembers alike, as did five of the county’s public libraries. Local dignitaries, including County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., made the rounds.

“We know relationships matter, we know community matters,” the executive said at the Liberty Senior Center in Randallstown.

About 150 seniors gathered in the dining room to share a hot meal and meet with Olszewski and County Councilman Julian Jones. Volunteers helped prep and serve the food. Marie Dix, the center’s director, called up people by name to direct their table to get buffet-style food.

Dix, who has been the director at Liberty for about eight years, said she tries to learn the names of all 1,600 registered members, making it one of the largest in the county.

“The socialization is really important," Dix said. "A lot of seniors are alone, so this is their only means of mingling with people.”

For Olszewski, the importance of senior citizens maintaining social contact with others is personal. He said he remembers about a decade ago watching his maternal great-grandmother decline and lose her ability to leave her apartment.

“It’s real,” Olszewski said, “not just from the data.”

Isolation isn’t healthy

The National Institute on Aging has linked social isolation to everything from high blood pressure to depression to cognitive decline to early death.

Mary Carter, a gerontologist at Towson University, said becoming a socially isolated, or lonely, person can “spiral” and lead to behaviors that are linked to poor health outcomes.

“Individuals who are struggling to make connections may, in a sense, become less willing to take the risk for fear of rejection,” Carter said. “Going out into public, and being faced with the awareness that ‘I’m alone in the crowd’ sort of encourages people to stay put.”

That, in turn, often can lead to people living more sedentary lifestyles: watching more television, not eating well and not moving around much. Those behaviors also have been linked to negative health outcomes, so much so that the World Health Organization warned about physical inactivity as a “leading cause” of disease and disability in 2002.

In addition to lessening negative health outcomes for older adults, Carter said, an emerging area of interest is how intergenerational connections are positive for both parties.

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The interaction leads to a lessening of social isolation in older adults and, Carter said, younger adults can get valuable mentorship and advice from older folks who have “survived the trials of their day-to-day living.”

Dix has seen such benefits at the Liberty Senior Center. While members have to be at least 60 years old to join, volunteers and staff are frequently younger. The communication she has witnessed is always positive.

“You can see they really care about each other,” she said.

Looking ahead

At the Bykota Senior Center in Towson, about 75 people gathered for lunch on No Senior Eats Alone Day said the center’s director, Julie Lynn. On an average day, that number is closer to 20 or 25 people, she said.

One of the guests who visited for lunch was Baltimore County Chief of Police Melissa Hyatt. She and other officers helped serve lunch and stuck around to share a meal with the members.

“We were served by the police, so that was kind of fun,” said Andrea Shreiner, 67, a four-year member of the Bykota Center.

Shreiner said she spends most of her time in the center upstairs in the woodshop, carving bird sculptures. She calls them “comfort birds,” and they’re meant to be held and used to soothe anxiety. She said the center does a good job of bringing people together.

“It’s nice to celebrate that,” Shreiner said of No Senior Eats Alone Day.

While the Baltimore County senior centers are well used, there is still work to do, Riley said.

In 2020, when the population of seniors in the county reaches 25%, there will be more seniors than schoolchildren in the county, Riley said. The department’s allocated budget for fiscal year 2020 stands at $17.2 million, up from $14.5 million in FY 2018.

Dayna Brown, the department’s deputy director, said it was probably too early to say whether the department would have to seek a substantial budget increase as the population of seniors grows. But she said she could certainly imagine increasing staffing levels. Currently, the county Department of Aging has about 180 employees.

“We would certainly anticipate looking at things like increasing hours at some of the senior centers," Brown said. "We might have to look at increasing staff at the centers ... as there’s more demand for what services we do have and demand for new services and programs people might want. We would certainly have to meet that demand.”

To avoid a “crisis” of not being prepared for the changing demographics, the county needs to be proactive, Riley said. To that end, Baltimore County in late August registered to become an age-friendly community, which means that it "enables people of all ages and abilities to actively participate in community activities and treats people with respect, regardless of age.” The standards for becoming an official age-friendly community are applied by both the World Health Organization and AARP.

Riley said that means the county will be convening working groups and going on listening tours to develop ideas on how to improve in areas such as transportation, housing, outdoor spaces and health services.

Typically, the work to do so — convening focus groups and making plans — has to be completed within five years for it to count.

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“But we’re not going to take that long to get this done,” she said.

The Department of Aging wants to focus on resources and plans that will help people age in place rather than have to move to a nursing home of retirement community, Riley said.

Some of that work is as straightforward as developing fall-prevention courses in partnership with local fire department stations so that seniors can learn how best to move around with limited mobility without harming themselves or requiring assistance to get back up. Other initiatives may be more complicated, like creating new transit routes.

For now, though, thousands of Baltimore County seniors, spread across 20 senior centers, seem pleased with what they have.

Catherine Jones, a member of the Liberty Center for about 18 years and council president there for five years, said “it’s the people” that keep her coming back as often as she does.

She remembers shortly after she retired from the pharmaceutical industry about two decades ago complaining to her daughter that she didn’t know what to do with her time. So her daughter drove her to the senior center and told her to talk to people to make friends and form connections, Jones said.

She told some other people that she likes to play the card game Uno. She helped center staff organize activities and files, too. And she hasn’t looked back.

“I love the people,” she said. “We have so many things that are going on that invite people in. It gives you something to do and somewhere to be."

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