Serving seniors: Will county be ready for 6,000 more?

August 08, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

Washington County has an ice rink, a minor league baseball team and an art museum that rivals those of many cities.

But although a 2005 estimate showed that 19 percent of the county's population was 60 or older - about 27,000 - there is no multipurpose senior center here.

It's the only county in Maryland that lacks such a center, which stays open all day as opposed to the current senior nutrition sites, which operate only for several hours on weekdays, according to Susan MacDonald, executive director the county's Commission on Aging.

MacDonald said that many counties built such centers in the 1970s and 1980s, "but for whatever reason, our county didn't."

The commission now operates seven senior and nutrition sites around the county, but MacDonald said most of them are small and are open only for a limited number of hours.


The lack of an existing center might be daunting for some in MacDonald's position, but to hear her tell it, it's somewhat of a plus, "because we don't have to remodel older facilities."

MacDonald said today's vision of a senior center is a facility that is centrally located, with everything from nutrition counseling to fitness training and on-site representatives from programs such as the Senior Health Insurance Program, which helped many local residents with the Medicare Part D drug prescription plan.

At night the facility could be opened for youth groups and adult activities, she said.

Other centers around the state are pretty much run by volunteers who are seniors themselves, MacDonald said, so there isn't a major expense for staff.

Asked if the commission has any sites in mind, she said officials have looked at the fifth floor of the Aspire To Serve building on West Franklin Street, but there is only 7,600 square feet available there.

"We need at least 14,000,"she said, adding that commission officials have also looked at the old Antietam Paper building on Antietam Street in downtown Hagerstown.

MacDonald said state guidelines dictate that a county's first center be located in the downtown area, which she said makes sense because of the many elderly residents who live in three senior-citizen complexes there.

Asked what it would cost, MacDonald said that the commission has asked the county for $800,000 to obtain state matching money. MacDonald and former Hagers-town councilman Linn Hendershot made that request to the county board on Tuesday.

"We know times are getting tight, but these people have worked hard all their lives and they deserve this," she said, adding that she felt confident the project would move forward by 2009.

While the commissioners met Tuesday, another group went about its business at the senior site at Potomac Towers on Baltimore Street in Hagerstown.

At 11 a.m., Emma Reger, the site manager, began to serve lunch to about 35 seniors.

Most are residents, Reger said, but about 10 are bused in for the activities, which begin at 9 a.m. on most days with an exercise class.

On this particular day, a diabetic support group will meet. Later, after a knitting class, those who want to can take a bus to the farmers' market that runs at the Prime Outlets.

Three times a month, staff from the Washington County Health Department comes to present a variety of programs, Reger said.

Reger said she's been a commission employee for 32 years and said she couldn't do the job without her assistant manager, Gladys Green.

"This is not an 'I' place, it's a 'we' place," Reger said.

"It's a very rewarding job. I love my people," she said, gesturing at the group, whose members sat serenely as they waited for their meals to be served.

MacDonald is right about times being tight. State officials are hinting that state aid to local governments might be cut. For that reason, the county commissioners might be reluctant to such a commitment until they know how deep the state's cuts will be.

MacDonald said that a capital campaign is a possibility, although she said she wasn't sure how it would be structured, since the commission is not a part of county government, but a separate, nonprofit group.

It wasn't by design, but for years the county government has allowed the commission to handle the needs of the local aging population, something other counties have treated as an in-house function.

It's time for local government to step up, because estimates indicate that by 2015, there will be 33,825 senior citizens living here, 6,000 more than are here now. If we're going to be ready to serve those folks, we need to begin planning now.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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