"If you ask young people what old people fear the most, they always guess dying. But they're wrong. What older people fear more than anything else is losing their independence," said Carol Lienhard, the director of the Harford County Office on Aging.
The Office on Aging held a public hearing recently on its Area Plan for Services for the Elderly for 2004 to 2006. The plan outlined a number of services available to Harford's senior citizens and emphasized areas likely to need improvement.
The Office on Aging offers a range of services for seniors, including nutrition and health programs, assistance with Medicare and Medicaid difficulties, and volunteer and learning opportunities for the elderly.
"All of the services we have are aimed at providing them independence, dignity, and choice in the way they live their lives," Lienhard said.
According to the 2000 Census, almost 14 percent of Harford's population is older than age 60, and about 7 percent of those people live below the poverty line.
The Office on Aging works to improve the quality of life for all area seniors, and is especially concerned with those who live in rural areas, minorities, the disabled or chronically ill, and the poor.
The Area Plan for Services for the Elderly is updated yearly, while a more comprehensive plan is created every three years.
These plans are made in accordance with the Older Americans Act, a federal law that authorizes grants to states for community programs for the elderly.
The Harford office is part of a nationwide network of offices on aging that provide similar services throughout the country.
About 70 people attended the hearing Tuesday at McFaul Activities Center in Bel Air.
Some participants voiced concerns about prescription drug costs, which are not within the domain of the office. However, the seniors were told that the Office on Aging can counsel them on health insurance issues.
Others in attendance expressed a desire for more classes to be offered at the county's senior centers, including classes on computers and Spanish.
Lienhard said the center has taken into account everything discussed at the hearing.
"We don't finalize the plan until after the meeting," she said. "We like to think that we're proactive in listening. That's really how we shape our services."
Harford County is home to four senior centers associated with the Office on Aging. They are in Bel Air, Edgewood, Joppatowne and Abingdon. The centers depend greatly on the help of senior volunteers and also on their partnerships with other community and government agencies.
Within the three-year plan, the office outlined some key developments that it hopes to make over the coming years, keeping in mind the looming retirement of a generation of baby boomers.
The office's priority areas for 2004-2006 include transportation services for those in rural areas, affordable senior housing in the county, improved health-care for Harford's seniors, and expanding volunteer programs for older adults.
The office also hopes to make the community better informed about services already available.
For instance, the office currently offers meal programs, through which seniors are invited to eat lunch at one of the four senior centers. These meals meet one-third of a person's daily nutritional needs, and cost only what the diner can afford to pay.
The center expects to serve about 31,800 meals next year. They also expect to serve 30,000 meals through home delivery.
The county also provides about 130 seniors with what it calls in-home services.
According to Lienhard, these services are for people who, "if someone doesn't help them, they're going to lose their independence."
Services include doing chores, going shopping or escorting an older person on errands.
According to the office, the average in-home service cost is $120 a month. If that elderly person were unable to care for him- or herself, nursing home care could cost up to $5,000 a month.
"It's a bargain," said Lienhard, adding that the main goal is to preserve people's choice in how they live their lives.
In addition, the office provides legal assistance to those with low incomes and can act as advocates for those in nursing homes who have grievances.
The office also offers help - or a much-needed break - for families who care for older loved ones.
For instance, the office recently provided a week's worth of care for an elderly relative so a family could go on their first vacation in six years.
Lienhard attributes the office's success to the fact that staff members listen to the community, that they have so many beneficial partnerships with other agencies, and that seniors themselves contribute so much of their time.
According to Lienhard, with the help of older volunteers, three staff members can run a senior center with 500 members.
"It's as important for them to be able to give back as it is for them to be able to receive the services," she said.