Atlanta shows United States how to age in place in ‘Southern Comfort’

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The population of Metropolitan Atlanta has exploded in the last 25 years, prompting a massive expansion in its infrastructure, economy, and opportunity for those living there. The city is known for growing out rather than up—so it’s becomes more sprawling. Its suburbs extend for miles outside the city limits but still contain a large part of the in-city workforce. It is also a city with history, culture, and is a vibrant multicultural melting pot, a Southern metropolitan home of sweetened teas, white-columned plantation-era homes, and the latest rap tracks.

A plethora of services for the aging

As Atlanta’s population ages along with the rest of the United States, the city is coping with a group of older persons who have long been an active part of shaping the city and its surroundings. More than 540,000 people over 60 live in the Atlanta region. Atlanta also has huge disparities in income, is home to many wealthy seniors of old and new money, and contains areas with the most abject urban poverty among young and old alike. This means that Georgia’s Division of Aging Services (GDAS) has many holes to fill and opportunities to provide for older adults. It is trying hard to do just that.

Regardless of income, the GDAS focuses priorities that include safety, aging in place, and preventive care. support these priorities it provides wildly diverse services, especially by region. The City of Atlanta and its surrounding counties have a long menu, such as finding caregiver support in respite and out-of-home respite care for their loved ones to prevent burnout, phone lines to help seniors and their caregivers navigate the complex world of Medicare and other health insurance providers among other services.

GDAS is a leader in services for seniors, caregivers

GDAS also has support systems for adults 60 years or older who are raising children or grandchildren, resources for reporting and preventing elder abuse, and ways for seniors to find employment after retirement or in a long period of unemployment. Essentially, GDAS has created programs to meet great or specific needs in the areas where the seniors live.

The services are divided into categories, according to the GDAS website, including these: Help at Home, Nutrition & Wellness, Caregiver Programs, Protecting Rights and Safety, Medicare and Insurance Answers, and Other Services. For caregivers, this provides a wealth of resources to offer better care and to support senior independence. The State of Georgia offers meal delivery services, senior recreation services, homemaker services for daily chores and errands, and even visitors to check in and make sure seniors are satisfied and healthy at home.

By taking advantage of these services, caregivers can make their lives and the lives of their loved ones easier and less stressful. Instead of worrying about how a senior will cook a meal while a caregiver is working during the day, hot meals can be delivered to the senior’s door by a local “Meals on Wheels”-type organization. Instead of family members being a loved one’s only companions, seniors can attend activities or fitness classes which promote healthy living and emotional well-being. Family members can even get help coordinating their elderly loved one’s medical care, which is a task many caregivers struggle with. Information and help are available about the kind of doctor to seek, how to get good nutrition and fitness information, and how to transport a loved one from place to place and appointment to appointment.

Services for seniors include helping to find employment

The GDAS has programs for seniors over 55 with low incomes and seek employment. This program, the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), offers seniors a way to give back to the community as they find “unsubsidized employment” without government assistance and earn minimum wage as compensation for about 20 hours of work per week.

The organization interviews participants to determine work history, skill level, and service in the military to determine the best position for them. Priority goes to seniors who have served in the military, are disabled, have limited English proficiency or literacy, are at risk of homelessness, or have had trouble finding a job. These are seniors often in the greatest need of employment and can gain the most from finding even a part-time job. Even seniors who need some care can find positions. This is important for caregivers because it can help pay financial obligations, provide social activities and intellectual stimulation, and give seniors a safe place to be during normal work hours because the caregivers may have jobs or children of their own to look after.

Atlantia Regional Commission (ARC): Interview with Mary Blumberg

The Atlanta Regional Commission serves the Greater Atlanta communities in various ways. It serves Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Dekalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, and Rockdale Counties, which contain most of the population of Georgia. Of the many programs it offers, a noteworthy one is the AgeWise Connection program, a hotline that connects seniors and their caregivers to counselors and services that can help them lead more fulfilling lives and increase independent living.

Mary Blumberg, Manager of Strategic Planning and Development at the Aging and Health Resources Division of the Atlanta Regional Commission, says low-income seniors can be among the most at-risk members of the population. She says the Division’s programs and services help them gain independence and health. The organization’s responsibility is twofold, she says. The first is to “provide services that meet the needs of seniors today”. The second is to “keep our eyes on the horizon and know trends and make plans” for future needs and seniors. This means the commission focuses on growth and future programs. Blumberg adds, “Caregivers don’t have to wait for the future. They can get help right now.”

“Caregivers don’t have to wait for the future. They can get help right now.”
Mary Blumberg, Atlanta Regional Commission

The Atlanta Regional Commission supports seniors and their caregivers of all incomes and does more than provide good service. It connects caregivers and seniors to other services and supports these services. The ARC staff are passionate about their work, maybe because they are caregivers themselves.

Blumberg shared her experience as a caregiver. She spent a career of more than 30 years working with older people and health services, beginning in nutrition because she is a dietician by education, and then was faced with caring for her mother as Alzheimer’s took hold, which became an education itself.

“Nutrition was my first interest,” she says, “but as I got more and more into working with older adults” her true niche became evident. She described her mother’s dementia, “For the last ten years of her life, she required constant caregiving. I have experience working with my mother and with the people who worked with her, and watched her decline in that terrible disease.” This experience left her struggling to make the necessary decisions about care, even with her professional caregiving and health services experience. She knew then that people needed help.

The people at ARC are passionate about their work,
maybe because they are caregivers themselves.

The Care Consultation program available in Atlanta offers such help. Designed specifically for caregivers, it is especially helpful for those who are afraid of, or who are already experiencing, burnout or frustration, as Blumberg felt in caring for her mother. The Care Consultation program offers online support for a full year and allows caregivers to get training at the Benjamin Rose Institute, which “provides very structured but tailored” instruction to meet caregivers’ needs, says Blumberg.

“Monthly or more frequent phone calls get them connected to the services they need,” such as meal delivery services, homemaker services, or just “a place to talk to a trusted source that can listen to their concerns” or “help them plan a little bit about what to do next” as their loved one’s needs change. The program is evidence-based, focusing on the results of research. It creates a community of people from whom caregivers can get support and guidance.

About how well the program works, Blumberg says, “It certainly can enable people to carry on.” She adds they also have an information hotline featuring trained counselors who listen and give advice. “Sometimes it’s the older persons themselves who call, but often it’s the caregiver who reaches us first,” in order to find support, services or programs that make senior living easier. Through the hotline, supporters can offer counsel and “provide those direct services and links to direct services. We help people figure out what their options are, in addition to things like getting meals and homemakers and transportation services.”

AgeWise Connection aims to make Atlanta an all-inclusive center

The goal of the AgeWise Connection program is to make the Atlanta metro region a place “where people of all races, ages, and incomes can live a quality life,” says Blumberg. It seems simple but is really not. Empowering the metro area “to meet the needs of a changing society while ensuring that adequate support exists for all families” takes major coordinated action and support across multiple services and organizations.

Beyond providing these  services, AgeWise is meant to help empower providers and caregivers by extending access to education, assistance, and resources that enable them to help seniors and persons with disabilities. This takes it beyond board rooms, spreadsheets and grants, and roots the focus on the individuals who provide daily care and who need to use and understand the services provided by other organizations.

Cadre of volunteer seniors proselytize

Getting the word out effectively about AgeWise is more than sending mass emails. “A wonderful cadre of 200 retired seniors in a volunteer program,” Blumberg says, serve as proselytizers for the program. “Older adults volunteer to go into the community and do presentations, or one-on-one interactions to let people know what is available.” This is especially helpful in impoverished or rural areas, she notes, where seniors often have little access to the Internet. In these cases, seniors educate each other on how they and their caregivers can empower themselves to be more independent and self-sufficient and enjoying older age rather than becoming stressed about it.

AgeWise also looks to many faith-based organizations, which in many areas are the key to communities and existing services. By staying in touch with local organizations and using seniors to spread the news, AgeWise and ARC provide seniors needed services and help to do so by answering or placing more than124,000 phone calls per year.

The goal is to make the Atlanta Metro region a place
“where people of all races, ages and incomes can live a quality life.”
Mary Blumberg, Atlanta Regional Commission

The Atlanta region is fast becoming a hotspot for aging-in-place and for senior centers offering care. They are setting national standards for excellence. Blumberg says each program supported or provided by the ARC offers different strengths and opportunities for seniors.

“The point is that we are basically working to service everyone in one way or another,” whether it is a direct service or provided through a related program. Through the Lifelong Community initiative, they are already at the age where Baby Boomers are qualified for services…, we’re also planning for the future,” she adds, “and partnering with communities to do so.”

Atlanta’s weather, low cost of living, cultural centers, transportation commend it

This means communities have plans, templates and services to turn to when they see a need to be filled. In their region and nationally, one of their largest priorities is to provide “better transportation options,” according to Blumberg. It’s about making communities more available for individuals, like finding “innovative ways to get transportation where there aren’t fixed-rail systems or MARTA,” the Atlanta public bus and train system.

As seniors enjoy the moderate Atlanta weather, a cheaper cost of living than other United States regions, excellent universities and cultural centers, and a relatively low cost of medical services, the Atlanta region is looking at how to better serve seniors and their families.

Blumberg advises seniors and their caregivers who are looking to move to Atlanta or seeing how they will move to Atlanta to age there, “You need to look and think about what’s important to you. Everything from the heart of Atlanta to our more suburban areas have things to offer.” She recommends contacting the AgeWise Connection hotline, whose counselors can explain what programs and services are available in which locations and explain the limitations and availability of Medicare, which varies by state.

 

Sources

Atlanta Regional Commission. Aging and Health Resources. Center for Community Services. Available at http://www.atlantaregional.com/aging-resources. Retrieved July 28, 2016.

Atlanta Regional Commission. Living Beyond Expectations: Regional Strategic Plan. Atlanta Regional Commission, PDF. Published July 2015.

Georgia.gov. FAQ. Division of Aging Services. Available at http://aging.dhs.georgia.gov/faq-0. Retrieved July 28, 2016.

Georgia.gov. Programs and Services. Division of Aging Services. Available at http://aging.dhs.georgia.gov/programs-and-services. Retrieved July 28, 2016.

 

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