Howard groups helping older adults 'age in place'

Columbia's Paul Verchinski is 69, reaching an age of decision about where to spend his senior years. He plans to stay right where he is.

"I've lived in Columbia since 1973," Verchinski said. "I've raised my kids here. I like it here. It's a great place to live, so I'm not leaving."

He's not the only one who thinks that way.

Nearly 90 percent of American adults over age 65 want to stay in their residence, with more than 80 percent believing they will not move, according to a survey published by AARP.

This is called aging in place, and it's happening in Howard County.

"Howard County has a great quality of life, and I think that's why we are seeing so many more seniors want to stay," County Council member Courtney Watson said last week at a forum hosted by the Howard County Citizen's Association called Aging Successfully in the Community. "We want our seniors to stay here, and we want to get better at helping them age in place."

Verchinski, who helped put on the forum with fellow advocate Rusty Toler, 63, said the main hurdles facing aging in place are transportation, social activities and home maintenance.

Local programs addressing those issues have picked up steam in recent years. A nonprofit program called Neighbor Ride, which began in 2004, provides transportation for older adults through volunteer drivers. Almost 10 years after it began, the program averages 1,200 rides per month.

Last year, the Howard County Council passed legislation granting a livable home tax credit of up to $2,500 for residents who install accessibility features in their homes, which Verchinski says helps older adults build ramps or install lifts. In addition, the Howard County Office on Aging, headed by director Dayna Brown, provides programming and referral services targeted at addressing aging in place.

"I think we are doing a good job, but we need to do a better job," Watson said.

That approach has led to the launch of three separate initiatives aimed at creating a more livable community for older adults.

The Columbia Association, at the request of its Senior Advisory Committee, is in the process of compiling a comprehensive master plan for older adults. Chief Operating Officer Rob Goldman said a work team consisting of CA staff and Verchinski and Toler, who represent an advisory committee, was assembled last year and is at the end of the data-collecting phase.

The final step is a telephone survey, which began this month and will focus on adults over the age of 45.

"It's really important that we get good, quantifiable data to understand what older adults in our community want and need as they age," said Goldman, who is the chair of the work group. "This will help CA to provide and advocate for the programs and services that will best serve them now and into the future."

CA expects to finish crafting a plan this winter and hopes to present the findings to the board of directors for consideration in the next budget cycle.

The county is also ramping up efforts.

Brown and Watson said the department is hiring a consultant to help develop a plan that will look at the office's existing programming and make recommendations for the future.

"We want an outside independent temperature taken of how we are doing as a county," Watson said.

The third initiative woud bring the senior village concept to Howard County. A national movement started in Boston in 2001, a senior village is an organization that coordinates services — everything from yard work and home-delivered meals to legal assistance and exercise groups — for seniors who want to continue living in their community but need help to do so.

The concept, led by Columbia resident Mary McGaw, 68, has received support from Brown, who sits on the village's steering community.

"It's all about making the community a livable one," Brown said. "It's about community, and about people making it theirs for as long as they possibly can."

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