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Beware 'Senior Tsunami'

Growing senior population likely to put strain on county, state services.

How to prepare for what was described as a "senior tsunami" was the focus of a Community Conversation on Aging March 14 at the Lincolnia Senior Center. Nearly 100 representatives from three Northern Virginia jurisdictions attended the event.

Under the aegis of the Virginia Department for the Aging, personnel from Alexandria's Office of Aging and Adult Services joined with those from Arlington and Fairfax counties' Area on Aging to share ideas and explore methodologies on the needs of the Commonwealth's rapid expanding aging community. The fastest growing age block nationwide are those 85 years and older, according to statistics.

"How do we not get caught by surprise when there is a senior tsunami breaking on our shores?" asked Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) in kicking off the two-hour session that heard from four diverse speakers addressing various challenges facing communities in meeting the needs of their elderly residents.

"We are looking at a series of challenges from housing to transportation to technology to meet the needs of seniors in the years ahead," said Kauffman. "Only 2 percent of the entire [Fairfax County] budget is dedicated to senior needs."

Following Kauffman's brief stage-setting remarks, Robert C. Eiffert, director, Senior and Specialized Housing, Department of Housing and Community Development, Fairfax County, who served as the program's moderator introduced Del. Robert H. Brink (D-48) of Arlington. He reviewed the recently completed General Assembly session's actions on elderly issues, primarily those impacting transportation and education.

"We are all coming of age now. And, this is something we will have to deal with," said Brink, acknowledging his own approaching 60th birthday.

"There definitely is a senior tsunami and we must be ready to make sure their housing, medical and transportation needs are met," he said. "Our present transportation system impacts seniors' ability to get out and circulate in every day life. It is their ticket to independence."

"There are also the economic issues. Everything costs more here in Northern Virginia. Many of the younger generation are moving further and further out from the core areas to more affordable areas," Brink said. That impacts the tax base to provide revenue to fund necessary services.

"Right now, seniors account for 31 percent of our overall population. By 2010 that will rise to more than one third," he said.

Brink added that 40 percent of the state's revenue comes from Northern Virginia. "What we are looking for in Northern Virginia is to get our fair share of that revenue to meet our growing needs," he said. "It's been 20 years since the state did something to improve the transportation system and network in this region."

Addressing the transportation package passed by the 2007 General Assembly in its final hours, Brink characterized that package as "severely lacking" and posing a danger to many of the services utilized by seniors.

REMAINING ON THE TOPIC of transportation, Robert Werth, president, Diamond Transportation, said, "My career in the transportation field is a direct reflection of what's going on in the aging of Northern Virginia," referring to his own transition from operating a taxi cab company to training those providing transportation services to the elderly and those with disabilities.

"There has been a lot of growth and change in transportation services for the aging over the years in Northern Virginia," Werth said. "One of the key elements is now proper training of drivers. It's not just the art of driving, it's all the other elements that go with serving a very culturally diverse elderly population."

"While the Commonwealth is working on the heavy transportation issue, we are working on the items that tend to fall through the cracks in the big picture," he said. Werth was instrumental in establishing such services as "Senior Taxi" in Alexandria that is one of the programs offered by Senior Services of Alexandria.

Werth also suggested Virginia take a page from the Florida handbook in creating a "designated revenue stream for senior transportation."

He emphasized the need for more creativity at the State level.

WHEN IT CAME TO EDUCATION for seniors, Richard H. Chobot, Ph.D, executive director, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University, began with a quote from singer Eartha Kitt — "I'm learning all the time. My tombstone will be my diploma."

He maintained that senior educational opportunities remains an issue that is constantly expanding and changing. It is also not limited to traditional education, according to Chobot.

"There are both social and economic benefits to continuing education," he said, adding that 22 percent of all library users are senior citizens.

"The problem we are coming up against is one of capacity," Chobot said. "There are 69,000 plus seniors presently residing in Fairfax County and that number is climbing daily."

"There are 150 facilities in Northern Virginia dealing with independent living. People need to remain engaged in life to maintain their spirit of independence," he said.

Substituting for Virginia Department For The Aging Commissioner Julie Christopher was Debbie O. Burcham, chief deputy commissioner, who discussed an array of state programs now operating to deal with senior challenges and opportunities. "We want to create more independent living opportunities for the elderly," she said.

She noted that her department will use the information gathered in the March 14 meeting as part of an overall plan to identify, fund, coordinate and deliver future services and program to Virginia's aging population.

The March 14 session was part of a statewide-information exchange initiative to provide local businesses, education and elected leaders the opportunity to address the needs of a growing elderly population. Following the formal presentations the audience broke into small discussion groups to develop specific suggestions as feedback to Burcham and state government.