Isolation, loneliness and helplessness are becoming an everyday reality for many senior citizens in Frederick County, many of whom never realize there is help available, according to members of an advocacy commission for the aging.
For much of their adult lives they have worked, raised families and lived independently. Now, as they age, they struggle to pay bills, make a meal or even get to a doctor's appointment.
No longer able to drive, many feel isolated, lonely and depressed, never realizing that there are services in the county that can make their lives easier, the advocates said.
“Many seniors are not able to take advantage of all that is available to them,” said Hermine Bernstein, a member of the Frederick County Commission on Aging, a 20-member panel that helps oversee services for seniors. “They do not always know what is available and who to contact. Some seniors are really isolated, and they are not getting the information they need.”
Bernstein, along with commission members Louise Lynch and Debra Savageau, met with The Gazette on Dec. 6 to discuss the importance of educating seniors and the public about the availability of services.
The panel on aging, appointed by the county commissioners, includes residents, elected leaders and senior care providers. It works with the Frederick County Department of Aging.
As aging commission members raise their concerns, the Frederick County Board of Commissioners on Friday issued a news release touting all the services and programs the county provides to help seniors. The release included a four-page resource guide detailing the programs.
Commissioners' President Blaine R. Young (R) said Monday that he issued the release in response to an inquiry from The Gazette about the commission members' concerns.
“The call made me initiate it,” Young said. “Maybe I have too much time on my hands, but I started thinking about it. ... It's nice to have something like this available.”
Among the programs for seniors noted in the resource guide was the county credit for people at least 65 years old who have trouble paying their property taxes.
A 20 percent property tax credit is given to residents at least 65 years old who earn $60,000 or less annually and have assets of $200,000 or less. As of Nov. 30, 664 seniors had received the credit, enacted by the commissioners in January, at an average of $229 in tax credits per person.
The release also reminded seniors of the county Department of Aging, which offers programs and activities for seniors and people with disabilities.
“... We know that many people are struggling during these challenging difficult times, and [we] want to reach out to this very special group of county citizens to make sure they are aware of all the many opportunities available,” Young said in the release.
The county operates senior centers in Brunswick, Emmitsburg, Frederick and Urbana. It also delivers hot and cold meals to homebound seniors through the Meals on Wheels program.
But for some seniors, just taking advantage of the services the county offers is difficult.
“I think some seniors are not getting what they can get,” said Jerolyn Minor, 75, of Frederick, while playing cards at the Frederick Senior Center on Taney Avenue Monday. “A lot can't read, so they don't know what is available. And, some are afraid to ask questions. The county does have nice things for seniors, but a lot of them won't go.”
Population to soar
As people live longer and baby boomers continue to age, the senior population is expected to skyrocket in the county in the coming years.
Within the next 18 years, residents older than 65 will number 58,000 and account for one in five people in Frederick County, according to the Maryland Department of Planning.
Baby boomers — Americans born between 1946 and 1964 — will account for a larger portion of that population. Planning for the county services that the aging baby boomer population will need is paramount, Lynch said.
To save money, the county eliminated meals to seniors on Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, but Young reiterated that the senior population is of vital importance.
Young points to the board's vote in May to spend $100,000 on a study of senior needs. The comprehensive report, which has yet to be completed, will enable the county to plan for both the short- and long-term needs of the growing senior population.
“Just like I say, 'We're open for business,' I say. 'I want this county to be the most senior-friendly,'” he said. “But I told the board, 'When this study is done, I don't want it shelved.' We need to put a plan in action.”
Young said he wants to entice seniors to retire in Frederick County, instead of moving to Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Better services and lower taxes will go a long way to keeping seniors here, he said.
“Advocacy [for seniors] is one of the goals of this [commission on aging],” Lynch said. “We know seniors are afraid to ask for help, and if they do, someone will come in and say, 'You can't live by yourself anymore.' There is just not enough awareness of the senior population. We need to bring it to the public's attention.”
“Our senior population is increasing, and the problems are only going to get bigger,” she said. “Assisted-living facilities have everything for seniors, but for the people that can't afford all these things, it's going to be a problem.”
An assisted-living community provides its older adult residents home-like apartments and independence, while still offering help with care. They differ from nursing homes because they typically do not provide full-scale medical services.
Savageau, the director of marketing for Country Meadows, a retirement community in Frederick, said many seniors hide the fact that they are struggling. They don't want family and friends to know that they need help.
“It's an issue of respect,” she said.
Already, the three commission members point to transportation as the top issue for seniors, especially for those who have been forced to hand over the keys and stop driving.
It can be a loss of independence, and a barrier stranding them at home, they said.
“Transportation is the biggest issue, and what happens to seniors if they can't drive?” Lynch asked.
Minor, and her friend, Peggy Snoots, 73, of Frederick agreed.
Relaxing at the Frederick Senior Center on Monday, both Minor and Snoots said taking a county TransIT bus system is difficult for the elderly. Both women contend that the bus schedule is confusing.
“I stopped going on them,” Snoots said. “I just don't know which one to take. My son comes from Hagerstown to take me [to the doctor].”
Minor had the same complaints.
“I tried looking at those schedules, and I don't know what I'm looking at,” she said.
Getting on and off the bus can also be difficult for the elderly.
Snoots said the bus drivers are not always helpful.
“They don't always help people getting on and off the bus,” she said. “They just look at you.”
The TransIT bus system provides a special service — TransIT Plus — for seniors and the disabled, which is offered at a reduced rate. However, it is not a taxi or ambulance service, and does not provide personal-care attendants. Trips must be scheduled at least two business days in advance.
Nancy Norris, director of TransIT Services, said bus drivers do assist riders getting on an off the buses.
But the drivers of the larger “connector” buses that transport people around the county do not have the time to help riders, she said.
“They make too many frequent stops,” Norris said. “If they require help, they need to use the TransIT Plus.”
Norris said people needing help can call to make a reservation for a TransIT Plus bus.
But Savageau said that for some seniors riding a bus is not always the answer.
“Getting on the bus itself is an issue,” she said. “Many are afraid of falling. Falling is such an issue for seniors.”
Bernstein, a driver for the national Partners in Care program in Frederick County, tries to do her part to help. She volunteers by driving seniors to medical appointments, hairdressers and the grocery store.
“It's amazing,” Bernstein said. “Most of the people I drive in Partners in Care don't have family available. These are people that can't drive anymore, and they want to maintain that feeling of independence.”
For more information on TransIT Plus, or to book a ride, call 301-600-2065 or visit their office at 1040 Rocky Springs Road in Frederick. Office hours are from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, or access their website, at www.FrederickCountyMD.gov/transit. For information on Partners in Care, call 301-600-6008.
To view the county's resource guide for services and programs for seniors visit www.frederickcountymd.gov/documents/13/1160/7693/Senior%20Programs%20and%20Initiatives_201212141119499266.pdf.