City needs to prepare for aging citizens

At issue | Herald-Leader series, "Voiceless and Vulnerable" on nursing homes; Tom Eblen Aug. 22 column, "Gray's 'fresh start' has ideas to chew on"

Fear, anxiety and dread are more often associated with the aging experience than thoughts of happiness, wisdom and pride.

Recent Herald-Leader articles that have investigated elder abuse and neglect in nursing homes — the system that we have delegated to care for the most aged and vulnerable — verify what we most want to avoid.

Growing old is the equivalent of being cast aside, forgotten.

Yet the doubling of the 65-and-older population in the United States in the next two decades is forcing us to examine old age.

With the average life expectancy now 77.9 years (an increase of 30 years since 1900), Americans hardly celebrate the opportunity for extended life, nor do we take steps to accommodate the onset of chronic illnesses that occur as part of the aging process.

Instead, we rely on social service programs funded primarily by the Older Americans Act, such as congregate meal sites, senior centers and home health, to support elders living in our communities.

While these programs have been periodically modified, funding and innovation have remained lacking since their establishment in the 1960s. Without the celebratory attitude of old age and support, older citizens are encouraged to passively acquiesce to a diminishing quality of life.

The aging of the largest demographic cohort, however, affords communities tremendous opportunities to not only improve the quality of life of its elderly citizens, but for others across the life span. Accessible sidewalks, larger road signs, expanded pedestrian crosswalks, affordable public transportation, mixed-used urban development with universally designed entry and exits benefit parents with strollers, wheelchair users and everyone in between.

Civic leaders who understand the needs of children, young adults and elderly citizens alike will find a great deal of commonality in the kinds of environments that are good for all. When doing so, there will be less need to send the aged and vulnerable to places and services that are hidden from the community, such as nursing homes.

A good start is the willingness to talk about the issue, embrace old age as an honor and remember human vulnerability when planning for citywide initiatives.

At the same time, the onset of chronic disease and diminished social support necessitate special consideration. Just as it takes a village to care for children, it takes a village to care for vulnerable adults.

Tom Eblen noted in his column that the only new building mayoral candidate Jim Gray would propose as mayor is a new senior center. Vibrant senior centers are essential to helping communities give care to elders who have diminished income, diminished social supports and diminished physical and mental capacities.

The fastest-growing segment of the older American population is the group 85 and older (5.7 million in 2010 to 6.6 million by 2020).

Mental and physical disability is associated with age, particularly for those 85 and older. Moreover, approximately one-third of elders 65 and older live alone. A centralized location for exercise classes, meals, social gatherings and social services can significantly help an elderly adult live well in the community.

Age is the great equalizer — we all grow old and die —but the quality of our experiences varies greatly, depending upon the social environments we create. A city that embraces, instead of avoids, old age will enhance the quality of life of all its citizens.

Thankfully, Lexington has a mayoral candidate who has included aging in community as part of his platform. Let's hope Mayor Jim Newberry also gives greater voice to this important issue.