The Flathead County Agency on Aging began scoping sessions last week for the creation of a plan that will determine how the county approaches the issue of aging for the next four years.
“We’re really hoping to change the conversation about aging, and we want to imagine the positive,” Lisa Sheppard, director of AOA, said at the meeting.
The Older Americans Act of 1965 requires that each Agency on Aging create such a plan every four years as a way to ensure the agencies are still working toward the goals of its respective community. There are 10 such agencies in Montana.
Sheppard said the point of the plan is to engage the community to understand where the needs are and what concerns local folks might have about aging.
The new iteration of the plan will likely have the same primary issues, she said. Nationally, in Montana, and in Flathead County, the aging population is exploding, and there is a significant increase in demand for services. The AOA primarily serves a vulnerable population of older adults who have very limited incomes and are at high risk of costly institutionalization.
As the people gathered at the meeting illustrated in their concerns, the top fears of aging include living independently and being able to afford skilled medical care in home or in assisted living.
It’s an issue that seems to be growing faster than anyone expected. The last AOA aging plan expected adults 60 and over to make up 26 percent of Flathead County’s population by 2020; however, currently, that demographic already makes up 28 percent of the county’s population.
This adds pressure to the already challenging issues of finding affordable, accessible and available housing and transportation, Sheppard said.
The previous plan also laid out goals and objectives the AOA hoped to achieve in four years, such as enhancing its visibility as a source of information and empowering individuals and families for better planning. Sheppard said the agency reached those goals, including implementing the AOA ombudsman program to promote elder rights and safety.
Concerns about a lack of supportive services, navigating medical bills and Medicare, and how to cope without family there to see their elders through the aging process were prevalent from the crowd, though Sheppard then redirected the conversation to discuss the benefits of aging as a way of reframing what can typically feel like a fraught topic.
Benefits included being in control of one’s schedule, not having to raise teenagers anymore, and sharing what they’ve learned through mentoring or otherwise.
The new aging plan will be finalized in September, giving valley residents plenty of chances to call or visit the AOA and give their opinions. Sheppard said that older people can be reluctant to use the services provided at AOA because they think they’re taking something from someone else, but that’s not true.
“You’ve paid into this all these years; you’ve paid into this all your life,” Sheppard said. “You’re the backbone of this country. We want to support you to make decisions. We’re supposed to be listening to you.”
For more information on the Agency on Aging, visit www.flathead.mt.gov/aging or call (406) 758-5730.