Golden age: Charlottesville’s seniors are having their moment

Golden age: Charlottesville’s seniors are having their moment

Housing must-haves: near a great coffee shop, walkable to amenities like the library, grocery store and a park. The home can be on the smaller side—since it’s just you—and you don’t need a huge yard, but something that allows you to enjoy the neighbor-hood would be ideal. The main concern, of course, is affordability. ν In terms of a housing checklist, some may be surprised to find that millennials and seniors are remarkably similar, yet the 65 and up crowd is often seen as a separate audience. But the needs and wants of people who seek to age in the place they call home apply to everyone. And that’s the key idea behind the Charlottesville Area Alliance, made up of more than 25 organizations in the region that are ensuring that seniors are not left out of the larger planning conversations for our community. Because what’s often good for the podcast-obsessed college student is great for the retiree who wants to take classes to continue learning. They say age is just a number, and our area’s percentage of 65 and older residents is growing quickly—22 percent of our population by 2030.

Not only are seniors making up more of our demographic distribution, but they are living longer.

That’s good news, right? Although the national life expectancy is increasing—it’s now at 78—the average health span is about a decade lower, meaning the last 10 years of one’s life isn’t necessarily a time of wellness.

“Aging is identified as the biggest demographic issue our community faces,” says Peter Thompson, executive director of Charlottesville’s Senior Center, which serves 8,000 people a year. “The key that research consistently shows is how we can help seniors stay as active and engaged as long as possible so they can be assets for their family and community instead of becoming a burden—I hate to use that word, but that’s what people think of.”

American society is purpose-driven—we’re often defined by what we do—and once someone loses that familiar identifier, he can become lost if he doesn’t replace it with a new passion, Thompson says. For instance, Senior Center members volunteer 50,000 hours annually at other nonprofits in the community, whether that means taking tickets at the Paramount Theater or participating in equine therapy.

The Senior Center offers more than 100 programs, including a hiking group. Courtesy photo

But even though more seniors reside in Charlottesville and the five surrounding counties (a combination of people living longer and people choosing to retire here), older people can be an invisible population, Thompson says. Oftentimes, seniors are seen as an “other,” not as an inevitable future group of which we’ll all be a member. Even among retirees, he says, people in their mid-70s often don’t use the term “senior” to describe themselves. In their minds, a senior citizen is a frail, almost-bedridden individual, which is a stark contrast to the active members at the center who line dance, do tai chi, hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains, play in bands, teach children to fish, go on day trips throughout the state and even take African safaris together.

That’s one of the reasons why the Senior Center, which has resided at its Pepsi Place location since 1991 and plans to break ground later this year on a new building in Belvedere, will be called, simply, The Center at Belvedere. The existing Senior Center hosts 100 recurring programs a year, and rents out space to community groups hosting forums and programs or even weddings and quinceañeras, and Thompson says they realized about 10 years ago that they were going to outgrow the 20,000-square-foot space. The main meeting room downstairs doubles as a dance space, and its linoleum-tiled floor isn’t ideal for people with back problems. In addition, the room was not wired for acoustics, and hearing can be a barrier for many seniors who attend programs there.

The new 60,000-square-foot center will have a performing arts space, which community groups can rent, a Greenberry’s café/library with access to an outdoor space, several classrooms and meeting rooms, and a Martha Jefferson Hospital clinic that will be open to anyone in the community. Thompson says his goal is for the center to foster intergenerational relationships between people of all ages.

The new 60,000-square-foot Center at Belvedere will have a performing arts space, which community groups can rent, a Greenberry’s café/library with access to an outdoor space, several classrooms and meeting rooms, and a Martha Jefferson Hospital clinic that will be open to anyone in the community. Courtesy rendering

The $24 million project will be funded partly by a $1.2 million and $2 million one-time capital investment from the city and county, respectively. Since its founding in 1960, the Senior Center has never sought public funding as a 501c3, but Thompson says its community felt private philanthropists would see the project as more viable if the local government supported it.

“You look at city and county budgets and even if you look at federal dialogue, typically they say ‘we can’t afford entitlements.’ There’s never talk of how can we celebrate the success of people living longer now, how can we help people stay healthy,” Thompson says. “At the federal level, there’s a policy that says building and rebuilding senior centers should be a priority. There’s a theoretical understanding that that’s a key to dealing with an aging population. But there’s no money allocated to it—hasn’t been for 10 years.”

He points to city and county research in which they benchmarked other college towns and counties in Virginia, all of which funded a senior center—some as much as 100 percent.

He credits former City Councilor Kristen Szakos with being an early supporter of the plan.

“She understood it here,” Thompson says as he points to his head. “But she got it here,” he says, tapping his chest.

Thompson is also quick to point out that seniors are not just using societal resources but are working and oftentimes serving as caregivers to each other or grandchildren. He mentions a woman in her 70s who hikes with a Senior Center group and is also running the Boston Marathon this Saturday. She fell ill with the flu recently and was housebound for three weeks. Never married and with no children, it was her hiking group that brought her food and took her to the doctor.

“Aging is a fundamental issue that is a community-wide issue, and we’re all playing a part in it, for better or for worse,” Thompson says.

Common bond

The idea for the Charlottesville Area Alliance was born in 2014 when leaders of several organizations saw that our area’s senior population was projected to increase from 24,375 in 2000 to 63,821 by 2030—a 162 percent jump, while the county’s senior population is growing at an even quicker rate. For instance, in Albemarle County, 22 percent of the population by 2030 is expected to be seniors, a jump of almost 185 percent compared with the demographic distribution in 2000. In Charlottesville, the percentage from 2000 to 2030 is predicted to increase from 10 percent to 12 percent (a 50 percent increase in terms of total population, from 4,490 to 6,720).

In the last year, the City of Charlottesville and both Albemarle and Fluvanna counties signed a charter committing to being age-friendly communities. But helping to break down the needs of this population and shape what an age-friendly community looks like is where the alliance comes in.

Now at 25 members, including public and private entities such as Hospice of the Piedmont, Alzheimer’s Association Central and Western Virginia, JAUNT, Legal Aid Justice Center, Jefferson Area Board for Aging, Region 10 and both hospital systems, the alliance has broken into five work groups that examine the World Health Organization’s national metrics of what an age-friendly community looks like in the arenas of outdoor spaces, housing, health care, transportation, social opportunities, learning, civic engagement and employment. It asses where our region is as a whole—celebrating successes and identifying areas of need. Another goal of the group is to serve as an advocacy arm for this part of the community to make sure that the senior voice is being heard regarding funding for and development of our area’s amenities, and to ensure the Charlottesville area remains a viable location to age in place.

According to Marta Keane, JABA’s executive director who was a core member alongside Thompson in forming the alliance, issues such as securing affordable housing (a senior might have bought a house in Belmont in the 1950s but be unable to afford the taxes now) are driving some older members to the counties. The conversation of affordable housing in Charlottesville often focuses on workforce housing, Keane says, and she wants developers and tax-relief programs to take seniors into account too. Eleven percent of seniors in our region are at the poverty level making, $11,000 a year. Keane points to a city affordable housing tax relief for people who make 30 or 40 percent of the city’s average median income, but says some seniors can’t even afford that.

“That’s the thing I think with aging, it’s not a little box,” Keane says. “Everything that affects others affects aging, maybe in a different way, but it’s everything in our life. That’s part of the misperception, when you say, ‘Okay here are seniors.’” She waves her arms in a big circular motion: “No, heeerrreee are seniors.”

Living in the county can prove difficult for seniors who are unable to drive themselves to doctor appointments, the grocery and social activities. And Keane says that loss of mobility is often a key factor in social isolation that can lead to mental and physical health problems: 26 percent of seniors in our region live alone.

JAUNT offers transit service to residents in and outside of the urban ring, with about 50 percent of its 300,000 annual rides taking place in Charlottesville. The other 50 percent are split among the surrounding counties, and each municipality funds JAUNT’s services to its area. The hiking group at the Senior Center often goes on five- to eight-mile hikes in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In the city, residents have access to both the CAT bus system and JAUNT, but residents in the area’s surrounding counties rely solely on JAUNT, which contracts with each county municipality to establish routes, services and funding, based on need. JAUNT makes 300,000 trips a year, with about 50 percent of its them in Charlottesville and the remaining 50 percent split between the surrounding six counties.

Brad Sheffield, executive director of JAUNT, says seniors make up about 40 percent of the public transit’s overall ridership, although capturing exact population demographics is difficult because some seniors (often targeted as victims of scams) are leery about sharing personal information. JAUNT offers curb-to-curb service and employs drivers who are trained in paratransit services, such as knowing how to properly secure people in wheelchairs on the bus. The system runs fixed routes, but has an intricate system of scheduling based on who has requested services in a particular area. Sheffield says as more seniors move into an area and request services, other subsets of the population needing transit (those needing a ride to work or school) often emerge.

“I think that’s why the alliance talks about an age-friendly community because it’s not age-limited,” he says. “Without a doubt, if you get decision-makers to better understand a resource or service that’s put in place for one part of our population, it can actually serve way more if it’s taken into account when it’s implemented.”

Chip Boyles, vice chair of the alliance and executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District, says his connection to city and county officials offers the alliance a direct pipeline to organizations and discussions its members should be a part of. When Boyles was with the Redevelopment Authority in Baton Rouge, it brought in a consultant on a 200-acre development mixed-use, mixed-income project. And the consultant said that in 30 years of doing business, it was the first time she was able to determine that people who were aging and people in their 20s were looking for exactly the same things: smaller houses in good neighborhoods and close to amenities.

“That has carried on and we’re finding the same thing here,” Boyles says. “That’s where the planning comes in because it’s so non-traditional. The thing that we have to watch out for in a college town is the student housing is so lucrative for developers, and making sure they’re aware of the demand from older couples or individuals who are changing housing.”

In addition, “we hear a lot of times, ‘Let’s do this because the millennials like these,” Boyles says. “But someone needs to be there to say the 50-, 60-, 70-something would also like this. And so the voice of being at the table is so crucial—that’s where we’ve been trying to provide help with the alliance.”

Another key point when talking about seniors, JABA’s Marta Keane says, is that people ages 60 to 90 are all grouped together, but no one would ever group 20- to 50-year-olds together when talking about needs of the “middle-aged” population.

“The idea of age-friendly is that what’s important for seniors is important for everybody,” she says. “It’s not exclusive.”

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