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Group takes on future needs of nation's seniors

October 12, 2005|by DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY

daniels@herald-mail.com

Washington County is at a fork in the road, and how local, state, and national officials proceed will affect the quality of life for the area's senior citizens in the coming years, experts say.

Where seniors will live, how they will get to doctor's appointments, who will care for them, who will protect them from fraud and identity-theft issues, and who will arrange for their end-of-life wishes are just a few of the challenges health and aging experts in the county have tried to address over the past several months as part of a national focus on the country's senior population.

"We know that we have great challenges ahead of us. Nine out of 10 Americans are saying that they want to die at home. That's not going to be possible," said Dawn Johns, community relations director of Hospice of Washington County. "We need to look at changing the mind-set of Americans."

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Hospice of Washington County is just one of a dozen groups that came together earlier this year to form the Washington County Longevity Impact Group to address needs of the elderly population here over the next decade.

The group, one of about 350 across the country formally recognized by the White House Conference on Aging, has been working for the past several months to assess issues confronting seniors and propose a list of recommendations to address those issues as the baby boomers approach retirement. During a meeting in December in Washington, D.C., the Conference on Aging will review those reports, compile from them a list of 50 resolutions and develop a plan for how to implement them.

Prior conferences, held about every 10 years since 1961, have helped drive such policy decisions as the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the Older Americans Act and a national nutrition program for older Americans.

On Tuesday, speakers representing several of the Washington County Longevity Impact Group's subcommittees, presented their findings on topics ranging from transportation and housing to mental health and caregiver issues. Several speakers said the problems will need to be addressed not only by senior citizens and their families but by officials at every level of government.

"It's our job to make sure that no senior is left behind in Washington County," said N. Linn Hendershot, communications director for the Western Maryland Hospital Center who spearheaded much of the group's efforts. "None of this has any meaning unless we can get the attention of our leaders in Annapolis, and in Washington, and here locally."

Susan MacDonald, executive director of the Washington County Commission on Aging, said after the forum that with careful planning the county should be prepared to deal with its growing senior population. If nothing is done, she said she fears the county will become an undesirable place for seniors to live.

"Our oldest citizens deserve our attention and support. What this is all about is, essentially, how do we meet this challenge?" she said. "If nothing is done our community won't be a very nice place for senior citizens to live. What will happen is that there will be greater numbers (of senior citizens), and we will be confronted with a problem that will be very hard to fix."

Moya Benoit Thompson, director of outreach coordination for the Conference on Aging, said she was impressed with the group's efforts, though she noted many of the issues the county is facing, including transportation and medical reimbursements, are problems facing many communities across the nation.

"You are all definitely on the right track. As a matter of fact, you're ahead of the track," she said. "The issues that affect communities are the issues that affect our country as a whole. What you all presented today basically helps us do our work."

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