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Howard's seniors focus on aging in place, transportation

Howard County seniors are most concerned with growing old in their own homes and having transportation options, health services and recreational activities available to facilitate that goal, according to a recent survey of county residents age 45 and older.

The findings were presented in a series of three public meetings Dec. 8 and 9 by a team of consultants working to draft a master plan for Howard's aging population, which is projected to double in the next 20 years.

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Of the more than 1,200 adults who took the master plan survey this spring and summer, a majority said they were happy with their current quality of life, but only a third said they thought the county was prepared for the looming "silver tsunami."

"People were generally responding that they feel safe in Howard County; their quality of life is good. There were a lot of positives," said Lois Mikkila, director of the Howard County Department of Citizen Services, which is spearheading the planning process.

Where there's room for improvement, she said, is in transportation and the ability to age in place.

Though Howard residents said the availability of health services and recreational options in the county are up to par, the survey revealed significant gaps between the importance seniors placed on transportation services and aging in their own communities and their perceptions of the level of service the county provided in those areas.

Mikkila said those gaps widened when county representatives talked to groups of citizens underrepresented by the study, including minorities and those who make less than the county's median income. Many live in houses, condos and apartments that are not suitable for older adults with reduced mobility, she said.

"The telling piece was they really didn't see they had any options," Mikkila said. "I think that was a significant and disheartening finding."

About 30 community members attended each of the three county meetings.

Residents at the meeting Tuesday – held at the Ellicott City Senior Center – voiced support for study although some did mention they were unaware the county was working toward a master plan.

Mikkila said she was encouraged by the community turnout at each meeting and noted the "very high level of interest," and added community members have commented on a broad range of topics related to the study.

Based on the survey results, consultants recommended the county focus on strengthening and expanding programs to help residents grow old in their communities, whether by retrofitting homes to make them more accessible or designing new living spaces specifically for seniors, and increasing transportation opportunities, which would mean finding the funds to expand bus routes and other services.

Another resource to examine is the senior center, the survey found.

Respondents were evenly split between those who had been to senior centers and those who hadn't. Among those who hadn't, the survey found that changing the image of the senior center might help to attract more patrons.

Many respondents said they thought of words such as "old" and "boring" when they thought of senior centers. The solution, consultants suggested, might be to open senior centers to all ages, while continuing to focus on programming for older residents.

Creating a better senior center is part of what Mikkila says is the goal of planning for a "preferred future" for county residents.

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"It's having an array of housing options, a transportation system that is affordable and accessible and reliable and safe for folds, it's having health services," she said. Another priority is supporting the needs of caregivers, she added.

Mikkila said the aging master plan is currently in a draft phase and would likely be released sometime in January.

Moving forward, she'd like to see "a more public dialogue, community-wide, about what it means to age... and what are the public policy discussions we need to be having" to meet the needs of Howard's seniors. "We tend not to do that in an intentional sort of way."

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