Aging in place, rather than in a facility like a nursing home, has been shown to improve quality and length of life—and that is no surprise. Surrounded by their homes, their families, and their communities, seniors are more comfortable than in an unfamiliar or less-than-cozy place.
Aging in place is the preferred choice for seniors in America today, and it is certainly healthier for them, yet many seniors still pass away in hospitals and facilities. This is due to myriad causes, but often comes down to two vital factors: resources and money. Without the proper community resources surrounding them, including doctors, caregivers, and funding, many seniors end up in facilities that, while giving great healthcare, do not provide them with as much peace of mind and happiness as aging in place.
Community Initiatives for Aging in Place
There are some groundbreaking community organizations that are working hard to help more seniors age in place and do so more easily. One of these is The Urban Institute, which works to connect seniors to the community through improved, senior-oriented zoning codes. By making more seniors independent through connecting them with ways to get food, care, transportation, and more, The Urban Institute is actually saving America money as these seniors do not have to rely on government-based assistance or emergency medical care. Other organizations are also focusing on community planning initiatives, such as the AdvantAge Initiative or the Community Innovations for Aging in Place Initiative (CIAIP). These organizations hope to prepare communities to meet the needs of a growing senior population that will live longer and have better health (and thus more independence) than previous generations.
St. Louis’s Seniors Count
Another organization working to assist with aging in place is St. Louis-based Seniors Count. Pointing to general issues in the St. Louis community that affect seniors, and responding to community concerns raised, such as gaps in transportation, socialization, and nutrition, Seniors Count seeks to close those gaps and improve the lives of seniors. Even if services exist already which attempt to close these gaps, many seniors are not receiving them, or not receiving them often enough. Further, as the baby boomer generation ages, an even larger population requires these services, making the demand on current services even greater and spread even thinner. For seniors who want to live independently, Seniors Count steps in, hoping to meet the needs of seniors and plan for effective support for a new era of aging.
Citing that aging in place is a quarter of the cost of aging in a nursing home, Seniors Count believes that one of the ways to raise funding for seniors is to create a tax that supports regional efforts. Jamie Opsal, Program Manager for Seniors Count of Greater St. Louis says, “We knew that in St. Louis we had an older adult population that is growing just like every other place, but we also realized that we are higher than the national average. We realized that we had on the books since 1990 the ability to have a seniors fund tax, a property tax that would be collected that would allow people to age in place in the community,” and thus live more sustainable, independent lives.
A Tax that Enables Aging in Place
In Missouri, there is legislative language more than twenty years old that allows for property taxes to be raised in order to fund senior services. Seniors Count is attempting to make this tax a reality in St. Louis City, St. Louis County, and St. Charles County, which currently do not have a tax levy supporting senior services, despite most of the counties in Missouri doing so already. These three counties hold one of every three older people in the entire state, leaving them in desperate need for planning and funding for the future.
“Of 115 counties in the state of Missouri, 51 had already passed” this initiative, Opsal says, “and of those counties, 90% passed them the first time, and they were even very conservative counties,” which often resist new taxes. “The local foundations who provide funding for senior services came together to say, just looking at the demographics and the constant requests, we need some kind of change.” From this meeting of the minds, “they pulled together a coalition of senior service agencies to help lead an effort, and that’s what the initiative is all about: to get placed on the ballot in the November 2016 election, for the opportunity for the voters to decide if they want a senior service tax in that county.”
This levy allows for a tax of five cents per one hundred dollars of assessed property value, resulting in an average home appraised at $100,000 being taxed $9.50 per year.
This levy allows for a tax of five cents per one hundred dollars of assessed property value, resulting in an average home appraised at $100,000 being taxed $9.50 per year. Clearly, this is not a large burden upon homeowners, but, given that the revenue from this tax stays within the county and would be dedicated to supporting seniors, it could make a huge difference in supporting seniors aging in place. These taxes are levied by county, so the three counties targeted by Seniors Count would need to individually approve the tax, which has been very popular among voters in many of the counties that currently have it (more than half).
Once the tax levy is created, this funding stays within the county, and a board of elected local officials can determine what local organizations can use this funding. This money means that organizations doing good work for local seniors can apply for grants and funding in order to expand or improve their operations. This translates to more seniors having access to these services, increasing their independence through aging in place, and saving money as a result.
Instead of paying for long-term care in a facility, these seniors can continue to contribute to their communities. Seniors Count has already conducted needs assessments for their target communities and is prepared to hand them to this executive board once the tax levy is passed, meaning that services can begin to get funding as soon as possible.
In order to get this initiative off the ground, Seniors Count is focusing on education, says Opsal. They are working with local newspapers with a goal of having “something each month, or twice a month in the newspapers and/or on the local radio stations about the needs of seniors.” This outreach into the community, Opsal hopes, will mean “that when it comes time for people to vote, they are thinking, ‘I’ve been hearing a lot about senior issues,’” and will vote accordingly. They have also launched social media campaigns, since older adults are rapidly joining Facebook and other popular social media sites. “Right now,” she says, “We have on Facebook a little over 2100 followers… and we have over 800 followers on Twitter.” This connects them to the community as well, because “people in the community are sending in information about things that are going on in the area about seniors. And not just negative things, but positive things, like what they bring to a community, how they continue to build and to grow the community as they’re retired.” This connection amplifies the need for expanded services for seniors in the St. Louis community.
Next, they will be going “to different senior groups, church groups, who support [the initiative]and continue to educate them” on senior issues, says Opsal. Support for this tax levy has already been voiced by local government officials, including the mayor, she adds, meaning that the focus is more on educating voters than on finding legislative backing. Even the local legislators have aging parents, she notes, and that ties them to this cause in a very personal way.
The initiative has already begun to see success. Opsal says that using the funding and resources at Seniors Count, they had “just conducted some polling in all three areas” targeted by their initiative. The results were hopeful; they found that they have, “in the city of St. Louis… up to 74% support. In St. Louis County it was 62% and 58% in St. Charles County.” Since they only need a majority of over 50% to pass the tax levy, these numbers show that many in these communities are comfortable with passing it, and they have not yet finished their educational campaign—which will only increase those already promising numbers.
There are, however, those who do not support the tax levy initiative. “The only resistance that we’ve heard so far,” says Opsal, “are people who just don’t want any tax increases whatsoever. Especially in the very conservative areas, they’re just anti-tax.”
‘People have no idea that there are this many seniors living in this community. They have no idea that people 85 and older are expected to double in the next ten years. They have no idea that Medicare doesn’t pay for these things.” –Jamie Opsal
Yet even in strongly conservative areas, Opsal notes, they are seeing support, because “they have older adult parents, and these families really need help… People have no idea that there are this many seniors living in this community. They have no idea that people 85 and older are expected to double in the next ten years. They have no idea that Medicare doesn’t pay for these things.”
This means that many conservatives, when educated on how hard financial issues impact senior independence and longevity, are voting in favor of a tax. Many of these conservatives, before education, just thought that older people would go into a nursing home if they need any extra care, says Opsal, but “when they find out how much it costs to live in a nursing home, they go, ‘Oh my gosh!’” They begin to see the importance of some kind of support for local services, since “70% of all people over the age of 60 will need some sort of long-term care,” according to Opsal. Seniors Count asks them, “Do you have a plan for your family and what is that plan? Are you prepared?” The answers vary, but it comes down, more often than not, to needing at least some form of assistance.
Like many in their community, Opsal herself is not immune to the truly emotional aspects of providing a better life for seniors. Her education (a masters in Gerontology) leans toward this type of work, but more than formal education, she has received an experiential one.
She says, “I’ve seen the lack of resources,” for seniors and the devastating effects this can have. More directly, the issue of providing for seniors is part of her core values: “It’s a social justice issue. I was educated in grade school by the Daughters of Charity… I saw what my own family had to deal with.” If it wasn’t for Social Security, one of her grandmothers who was a scrub woman, doing people’s laundry, would not have been above the poverty level. “If it wasn’t for my family having financial resources, these women would be destitute,” Opsal says, emphasizing the need for financial resources for seniors, especially for those whose families cannot support them. “It’s the focus I’ve had my entire career. Because of my education, that’s what I chose to do for a living,” but it is more of a cause. “We need, as a community, to pull together. There are great resources that are out there. We need locally to pull together too to support this very vulnerable population.” Hence, her involvement in the Seniors Count initiative.
Opsal is not alone in her deeply-held beliefs concerning seniors. “I am supported by a phenomenal executive community who has been meeting on this initiative from its beginning. These are the people who have been committed to this since Day One… If it wasn’t for their leadership and their commitment of time and resources, along with the four foundations (The Daughters of Charity, Lutheran Foundation of St. Louis, the Missouri Foundation for Health, and Incarnate Words Foundation),” which provide the most support for Seniors Count, they would be experiencing much less success.
“This is truly a collaborative process. These organizations are bringing their staff to these resources. I could not do this without any of these people. It takes a village.” Seniors Count also wants to see this kind of initiative take place in other states: “I’m more than happy to help with any resources I can.”
Seniors Count gets some of its inspiration from success with similar funding strategies in nearby Ohio. There, the Council on Aging says that 40% of its funding comes from county tax levies similar to the one proposed in the St. Louis area. Another 40% comes from Medicare, with the remaining 20% coming from various other sources such as federal and state monies, donations, and “other supports.” This means that the programs available to seniors in Ohio would only serve 60% as many seniors—or only serve seniors 60% as well—without county tax levies.
These programs help older people (and people with disabilities) live more independent, dignified lives, offering services such as assisted living waivers for those who need long-term care but cannot afford to pay for such care on their own, or Meals on Wheels for low-income seniors who need help securing nutritious food. In Ohio, low-income seniors (and seniors who make too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to pay every bill or medical cost) can get assistance from county tax levies, leading to happier, healthier, and more independent lives.
Seniors Count is just one organization operating in one city, but it absolutely can serve as a model for legislative and tax-oriented support for seniors wishing to age in place. Just as Social Security was created to provide a better life and a social safety net for seniors, taxes such as these are a way that average citizens, who may or may not have a loved one currently seeking to age in place, can contribute to lengthening and improving the lives of aging seniors. This organization hopes to serve as a model for others in communities all across the United States.
If you would like to find out more, visit Seniors Count on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeniorsCount/ and Twitter @SeniorsCount.
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