The “Silver Tsunami” is coming, the steep increase in the 50-and-up part of the county population.
“It’s here,” said Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield). “We’re already living in it.”
Between 2005 and 2030, the number of individuals 50 and older is projected to grow by 40 percent in Fairfax County and the number 70 and older is projected to grow by 80 percent. Herrity attributes the changes to both the aging of Baby Boomers, and the general increase in life expectancy.
With those significant changes to community demographics already underway, the Board of Supervisors and Fairfax Area Commission on Aging initially drafted a plan back in 2007 to make sure the Silver Tsunami was a factor in county planning.
In 2013, Herrity and the commission decided the plan needed a major facelift. They spent the summer reaching out to communities around Fairfax County through public forums, including groups that speak Korean, Vietnamese, Spanish and Arabic. (According to the 2011 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, 26.7 percent of residents in Fairfax County speak a language besides English at home.)
The idea was to facilitate dialog on how to make the county more aging-friendly and to consider cost-effective strategies to help people manage their housing and transportation needs and age in place.
“The need is clearly there for us to take action,” said Herrity. “We went to the communities, heard their concerns. This is our attempt for an attainable, affordable, actionable plan to address what we heard.”
Now Herrity and the commission are ready to present the new and improved 50+ Community Action Plan to the Board of Supervisors at their meeting on Sept. 9, and expect the board to approve the plan at the Sept. 23 meeting.
The plan in its entirety is available in PDF form through the county’s website at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/olderadults. The plan addresses aging-friendly needs in six key areas: Transportation, Housing, Safe and Healthy Community, Community Engagement, Services for Older Adults and Family Caregivers, and Long-term Planning.
Within each of these categories are a range of community-driven initiatives designed to function with little or no government direction. In most cases, a local civic leader or “champion” would coordinate with a county staff member if necessary, but otherwise work independently, and require a lot of engagement from the community.
THE INITIATIVES RUN THE GAMUT from simply encouraging people to volunteer for Meals on Wheels and medical appointment driving programs, to creating partnerships that would offer low cost or free case management and mental health treatment.
In the transportation category, one facet includes supporting the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia's effort to provide a ride scheduler system for community-based organizations, partnering with multiple nonprofits. It won’t exactly be Uber for the elderly, but federal grant money will help make their services much more widely available to get seniors to doctor’s appointments, the grocery store, etc.
Home Sharing is an experimental initiative within the housing component. Many older adults live in homes with extra bedrooms and want to remain there as long as possible. At the same time, many adults with limited income are looking for affordable rent. The guide will provide advice on how to safely share a home. The idea is to match aging adults with unused space in their home with tenants looking for affordable housing.
“We think it’s an idea where the time has come and we’re pursuing it,” said Jim Lindsay, vice president of Adult Companion Care and home sharing champion. Though the concept of matching grad students and grandparents isn’t without its wrinkles.
“Who’s going to pay for a background check?” said Lindsay. “Who’s going to provide care? If she falls down, a college grad student isn’t going to be there.”
That’s where home care groups like Adult Companion Care come in. They’re qualified to and regularly perform background checks, and rent money could offset the cost of home care medical service.
“This gives them a mechanism to age in place and keep up with the burdens,” said Herrity.
According to the same 2011 Census Bureau study, 76.8 percent of Fairfax County residents 80 or older live in single family homes.
THE COMMISSION ON AGING will regularly — either quarterly or annually — fill out a scorecard of sorts for each of the initiatives and report back to the board.
To help with evaluating the effectiveness of the plan, Herrity enlisted the help of Thomas Prohaska, Dean of the George Mason University College of Health and Human Services. A team of gerontologists from Prohaska’s department will help gather and analyze data from the various initiatives.
Prohaska said the county has some work to do. “They’re definitely not dead last,” said Prohaska, referring to Fairfax County’s aging-friendliness compared with the rest of the country, “but definitely not up in front. This is a serious effort they’re doing here. If it all comes into place, it will definitely be an improvement in the quality of life.”
Prohaska referenced Florida, which has seen “empirical improvements in the health of the individual” with programs that help adults stay involved in community organizations, as well as Illinois, which he said actually saved money by spending $600 million to keep people out of nursing homes. (Though Illinois isn’t necessarily a front-runner on this, but rather an example of a national trend.)
But Fairfax county isn’t far behind with its 50+ plan. “They’ve got quite a menu of things going on here,” Prohaska said. “It will be fascinating. This isn’t a one-time thing; this is a sea change.”