The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 31, 2008


Many seniors rely on COA services

“Old age is not for sissies,” Bette Davis is reported to have said. That’s particularly true in Carlisle where limited town services, lack of public transportation, and distant neighbors can make it a challenge to stay put as you age. With more Carlisle residents entering their senior years, and in some cases, bringing elderly parents to town, the support systems coordinated by the Carlisle Council on Aging are straining to cope.

While many think of the COA as primarily a social organization, its services go far beyond. In fact, reports Director Kathy Mull, keeping seniors in their homes is the Council’s primary goal. Transportation, information referrals, volunteer visits, and health clinics are some of the organization’s responsibilities.

Seniors are 18% of population

Each year those responsibilities grow. In April 2008, according to Carlisle census information, 963 Carlisle residents were over 60, comprising 18% of the population. Of the 963 seniors, 344 were over seventy, and 79 over eighty. Demographics indicate that hundreds more Carlisleans will move into the senior category over the next years. In addition, residents are more frequently bringing aging parents into the community.

Outreach Coordinator Angela Smith reports that a variety of services can be arranged. Transportation is available for social outings, grocery shopping, and local medical appointments. Depending on the need, a referral can be made to Minuteman Senior Services or a private organization for in-home care. Meals on Wheels brings food to those who can’t get out. Volunteers can be found for social visits or help with computers and handiwork. Programs are available for those having trouble with finances. And if living at home becomes a problem, a referral to assisted living or other alternative housing is provided.

Fee added for COA van rides

“People in Carlisle can be really isolated,” notes Smith. Carlisle is the only area town with no public transportation, so the COA has put a heavy emphasis on filling that gap. It owns its own van, donated by an anonymous resident, and, frequently calls upon a list of “friendly drivers,” volunteers available to transport seniors. Transportation Coordinator Carol Killpartrick tries to schedule around peoples’ requirements for local medical appointments and grocery shopping, as well as for social and cultural outings, but there are limits. At least 48 hours notice is required, and the COA won’t transport for a medical procedure or for pick up after an operation. In addition, “We don’t go to Boston,” says Mull, and “there is a need.” Even with the restrictions, “Volunteer drivers are being used to the maximum,” she says.

Mull also notes that for the first time, van fees are being collected – $10 for out-of-town social outings and $5 round trip per family for medical appointments. Last year the town successfully applied for a refund of assessments to the MBTA, and has since joined the Lowell Transportation Authority, which provides funding for van operation. Mull says that as energy costs rise, fees have become necessary to continue van operation, but “We never turn down anybody” for inability to pay.

To reduce the need for transportation and maximize health and safety, the COA offers a number of in-town programs. A variety of health clinics are held, including a blood pressure clinic once a month, a podiatry clinic every other month, and, in concert with the Board of Health, a yearly flu clinic. Through a grant, the COA has the services of a social worker for six hours per week. The police department’s RUOK (Are you OK?) program arranges for seniors to receive a call each morning to verify wellness.

EMTs train

in geriatric emergency care

The fire department also works closely with the COA, according to Chief Flannery. At least one or two training sessions per year are held for EMTs on geriatric emergency care. Emergency workers are trained to look for signs of self-neglect and pass on information about at-risk seniors who have been in emergency situations. Flannery estimates that about 20% of emergency calls involve seniors who have fallen or have other medical issues.

Financial help offered

Mull says many Carlisle seniors who “have lived here a long time, in a modest home for 40 or 50 years” do not have the financial resources to deal with rising prices. The COA manages several programs to help. A food and fuel fund is being made available this winter, and 16 seniors work at Town Hall in exchange for a break in taxes. The COA has become a unit of Salvation Army, allowing collection and distribution of funds for food, energy, and catastrophic illness. The Friends of the COA can help with specific needs, such as medical equipment or walkers.

Help with managing finances is also provided. SHINE counselors are made available to help unravel Medicare and Medicaid, and Minuteman provides general financial assistance. A series of programs are currently taking place at the library providing information on managing for retirement. Smith expects greater need for such programs in the future, “With more 401Ks worth half, they’re going to be struggling.”

There has been an increase in the numbers of residents living with senior parents from out-of-town, says Mull. “I’ve seen a shift in that – people over 60 still taking care of a parent who is older.” Some of this is a matter of pure demographics, but a faltering economy contributes as it becomes harder for families to pay for assisted living. “There’s nothing for the moderate or lower income person” needing financial help, says Mull. She relates to the issue because, “I have a parent living at home in another town” and with her sister and brother, coping is a juggling act. “Without our help, he would not be able to stay.” She adds, “There’s not a whole lot of support in the area for caretakers.”

Demand for services growing

Add up the needs of long-term residents with newly moved seniors whose children work all day, and the demands on COA services have grown. “To be perfectly honest, it’s getting overwhelming,” says Smith. With no social service agencies in town, “They look to us. Demand is increasing rapidly.” She adds, “We’re not able to do what we’re trying to do in the hours designated.” And given a no-growth town budget, “It scares me a bit how much the needs are increasing. In future, the town is going to have to address these needs in a different way.”

Two years ago both COA positions totaled only 28 hours per week, and “we couldn’t keep up with requests from families.” Though hours have expanded, Mull says, employees are still being paid for fewer than they work. In addition to the demands of older residents, younger seniors are expecting more in the way of exercise, cultural events and chances for socialization. “It’s a part-time job,” says Smith, but increasingly, “the needs of our clients aren’t part-time.”

Asked about the possibility of coordinating services with the COAs of other towns, Mull notes that there is some effort to invite each other’s seniors to social programs. However, most towns have the same services and are similarly stretched, so providing mutual assistance is unfeasible. Smith says outreach coordinators meet every two months and frequently use email to share information and solicit help with specific situations, “There are a lot of people doing this a lot longer than I have been,” she adds.

Volunteers make a difference

Mull is pleased that over 80 Carlisle residents volunteer in some capacity with the COA each year. Volunteers provide one-time or regular assistance in a variety of capacities. Some offer particular skills such as sewing or home repair, while others visit, deliver Meals on Wheels, or offer to drive. In spite of the numbers, “there are not near enough,” says Smith. A particular need is for more drivers.

Smith underlines the invaluable support the COA provides. “One fall can turn an independent senior into someone who can’t get around,” she says. With hard work and the assistance of volunteers, the COA can help that person avoid institutionalization.

Mull notes that a COA survey will go out to all Carlisle residents later this year. She asks that residents of all ages take the time to complete the survey, which will provide input for future planning of senior services. ∆

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito