Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Businesses target growing senior market

Chamber event aims at bringing services to older adults in Bethesda

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Bethesda resident Austin Heyman thinks the county is doing its part to serve its growing senior citizen population, but then again, there’s always room for improvement.

Heyman should know. A senior himself, he advises the county executive’s office about matters dealing with the aging.

‘‘Transportation is the biggest concern,” Heyman said during an informational event called ’Specially for Seniors held in Bethesda last month. ‘‘We don’t have adequate escort transportation for people to get from their front door to a doctor, or whatever. We’re trying to help people age in place, but sometimes that’s difficult.”

The event, sponsored by the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce Dec. 20, brought together businesses and government agencies geared toward helping residents transition into their golden years smoothly. Held at the Bethesda Theatre, it was not only an opportunity for seniors to learn about available services, but also for Bethesda-area businesses to learn about the valuable and growing market.

‘‘Seniors are the prized demographic for the arts organizations,” said Ray Cullom, executive director of the theater. ‘‘And seniors in Montgomery County are typically well-educated, and have some discretionary income. These are the people we want in the theater.”

According to Charles Smith, Healthcare Research Analyst for Montgomery County’s Department of Health and Human Services, the Bethesda area has the highest number of older adults in the county, with more than 21,000 residents 65 years old and older. The county as a whole, Smith said, has nearly 111,000 residents in that age range.

‘‘Bethesda, by far, has the most seniors of any jurisdiction in the county,” he said.

The number of seniors in Bethesda is expected to grow to 27,000 by 2025.

With the projected increase of seniors in the area, county businesses and agencies have catered their products to fit the changing market, and new companies have sprung up to serve the generation.

The Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce acknowledged the need, and created a Senior Focus committee, which brings together businesses focused on helping the aging, as well as hosts a speaking series about aging. The committee, which was formed in the late 1990s, hosted the ‘Specially for Seniors event.

‘‘With an aging population everywhere, but especially in the Bethesda area, I think businesses want to take advantage of that, in a good way,” said Peter Ensign, executive committee member of the chamber. ‘‘Because seniors in Bethesda have good incomes, they will be attractive to businesses, and vice-versa.”

Manage on My Own, a Bethesda company that serves seniors who don’t want to move into a nursing home or assisted living center, but may need some help at home, was one of the businesses marketing its services at the ‘Specially for Seniors event.

The company began serving seniors earlier this year, after seeing need for assistance services in the area that will only continue to grow.

‘‘The need for this in Montgomery County is vast,” Craig Goodman, director of business development for the company, said. ‘‘Since statistics say seniors they want to stay in their homes, we have to help.”

OASIS, a national organization dedicated to educating residents over 50 years old about anything from finance to history, has seen its Montgomery County office grow markedly in the past year.

The group, which in Montgomery County is run through a partnership with Suburban Hospital and Montgomery Mall, focuses on keeping seniors’ minds active through classes, as well as through mentoring and tutoring area students.

Since moving to a new location in the Montgomery Mall this April, more than 1,100 new members have joined, according to Director Jane Silberman.

The Montgomery County branch, which opened in 1993, now has 12,000 members.

‘‘To be proactive, we need to look at all populations,” she said. ‘‘Community care is huge.”

But while many services focus on county residents who need help, it’s important to remember that most seniors in the area don’t need, or want, excessive help, Elizabeth Boehner, director of Montgomery County’s Agency on Aging, said.

The county has done its part in recent years to create a more senior-friendly county, by adding a 24-hour assistance number, providing library resources like music downloads and e-books online, and consistently increasing the funding in the county budget for senior care, Boehner said.

‘‘Not all county seniors are ill and needy,” she said. ‘‘Many just want to continue to live here because it’s where they have always lived, and want to do so as easily as possible.”