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York County model for safe, adaptable and welcoming aging
One day James Bates was walking around on his own, and the next he was learning new ways to navigate life after a severe foot infection led to the amputation of his leg.
The 61-year-old received assistance from the York County Community Foundation's Embracing Aging Initiative, which was recently lauded during a U.S. Senate hearing for its efforts to keep aging Yorkers safe, comfortable and involved in their communities.
The Senate Special Committee on Aging, whose ranking member is Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., held a hearing this spring in which it heard from a York County advocate who spoke on behalf of seniors on the importance of funding and cultivation of other resources to allow seniors such as Bates to age with community support.
Becoming dependent on a wheelchair could have cost Bates money he didn’t have, he said. His immediate home surroundings needed an upgrade to match his new way of life.
A grant allocated by Embracing Aging issued to Servants Inc. through the Hahn Home fund helped alleviate his burden.
Servants Inc. is a Red Lion-based nonprofit organization that offers older adult volunteers an opportunity to help their neighbors by making age-friendly home repairs, such as replacing tubs with showers and building wheelchair ramps.
Volunteers from the organization installed two ramps at Bates' Red Lion-area residence.
“I didn’t pay a penny, and I didn’t have the money,” he said. “It’s sensational what they do and how they help people who are elderly and on disability.”
Supporting seniors: Casey said at the May hearing “approximately 10,000 people turn 65 every day and 40 percent of those over the age of 65 have at least one disability.”
“We know that the federal government must help by making smart investments in our nation’s infrastructure to ensure that communities are safe, accessible and ready to meet the needs of older Americans,” he said.
The committee hearing focused on the key aspects of age-friendly communities, including safe and walkable streets, accessible housing and public transportation, opportunities for civic involvement and access to key support services.
“York County serves as a model for its innovative work to create a community that is a safe, adaptable and welcoming place to age," Casey said. "With 37 percent of county residents age 50 and older, York County’s Embracing Aging Initiative works to create opportunities for older adults to age well in their communities.”
Embracing Aging: Embracing Aging’s managing director, Cathy Bollinger, testified at Casey’s committee hearing, echoing the senator's funding efforts.
Bollinger said she believes Embracing Aging is too small to fund infrastructure projects and needs support from government officials.
"We see this as a top priority at the federal level," she said. "Providing funding to create better transportation options, improve walkability, provide incentives for municipalities to address blighted properties and planners and developers to preserve and build more low-income and affordable housing with supportive services, are keys to improved livability."
Housing shortage: Although York County was touted as a model for its aging initiative, work remains, Bollinger said, such as dealing with a shortage of affordable housing for seniors.
York Towne House, an affordable living apartment complex at 200 N. Duke St., currently has a waiting list.
“I had to wait a year-and-a-half before I moved in,” said 73-year-old Deb Smith.
Smith rented a house for 25 years with her husband. They decided that York Towne House offered an affordable price and amenities that met their needs.
The apartment complex has a contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Redevelopment, which means tenants pay a percentage of their adjusted incomes to live there.
“It allows us to pay for doctor's appointments,” Smith said.
Althea Doweary, 71, who is handicapped, said she feels secure living at York Towne House. She moved into her residence 10 years ago.
“I’m not out there where people are shooting and killing and stuff. We have cameras everywhere,” she said.
Remodeling: Many of York County's municipalities don't have residential ordinances in place for construction requests that accommodate aging, Bollinger said.
For example, if a family wanted to convert a garage to an apartment, Bollinger said, they might run into one of two issues: a municipality concerned that families will rent the unit after their aging relative no longer needs it, or that municipalities are concerned about placing additional strain on water and sewer utilities.
"We believe that working to improve attitudes in order to increase understanding and caring about the perspectives of older adults is the foundation for building a community where all ages want to live," Bollinger said.
"Without this perspective, infrastructure, services and policies will continue to be biased toward younger people," she added.
Aging impact: A study commissioned by the York County Community Foundation shows that in 2015, “16 cents of every dollar expenditure in the York-Hanover economy was made by people age 65 and older.” It’s projected to be “25 cents of every dollar in 2040.”
Bollinger said without older adults’ financial contributions, there would be a huge hole in the local economy affecting mostly retail, health care and restaurants. She estimated there would be a loss of almost $1 billion without the 55-and-older population.
The county also heavily relies on older adults who volunteer, Bollinger said. There were 884 people over the age of 65 who volunteer at the York County Area Agency on Aging or the York County senior centers in 2015, totaling 56,052 volunteer hours, she said.
“We’re here to help people learn how to live longer and stronger, to help older adults learn about their social interactions, health and housing,” she said. “We’re here to fill in the gaps."