Statistics Cloak Despair Of Many Stories

December 05, 1990|By Gary Gately

For just a moment, forget about the graying of the population, the demographers and their dire predictions, the faceless abstraction of statistics.

Forget about the stereotypes of doting grandmothers, of seniors whiling away the hours behind bingo cards, of aging globe-trotters satisfying their pent-up wanderlust while disposing of a small part of their considerable life's savings.

For just a moment, look into the faces of despair and listen to the voices of the forgotten, the desperate elderly people most never see or hear.

Think of your parents, aging relatives, yourself.

And imagine saving and planning a whole lifetime for the golden years, only to find that when you get there, the promises have been tarnished by hard realities.

For some, it means choosing between the basics of life most of us take for granted: heat, groceries, rent, medicine, health insurance, doctor bills.

Many grow too frail to maintain their homes, climb steps or even perform daily tasks like bathing, cooking and using the bathroom.

Some of them end up in nursing homes, mainly because private help with such tasks remains beyond their reach financially. Long waiting lists confront those who need public help.

Others remain trapped in homes where they can no longer climb steps or get in and out of bathtubs built for healthy people.

These seniors find Anne Arundel County has little to offer them. Waiting lists often stretch three years for public senior housing. The scarce private stock, typically running $1,500 a month or more, prices them out of the market.

A few who never knew poverty spend the golden years homeless.

"You're supposed to have dreams about what you'll do when you get old," says Bill, a homeless 60-year-old who still works painting jobs when he can get them. "But I have no dreams left now, just surviving and finding a bed at night. That's my only dream left now."

Today, in Anne Arundel County, as in many other places, the dreams have all but evaporated for many seniors.

For four days, in "Golden Years, Tarnished Promise," the Anne Arundel County Sun has introduced you to some of these seniors and the people who do their best to help them. The series concludes with a sampling of the voices and the images of tarnished golden years.

Anne Arundel, where the senior population is growing faster than anywhere else in Maryland, provides a microcosm of the dilemmas confronting many elderly people in many places.

Explosive growth in the elderly population comes as belt-tightening squeezes federal and state money to provide housing and in-home care and as the nation's health-care system continues to favor institutionalizing seniors in nursing homes.

And, as in countless communities across America, the county population's rapid graying already has brought alarming shortages in virtually every aspect of the care and feeding and sheltering of our elderly. Shortages include housing in all price ranges; in-home care ranging from help with daily tasks like bathing and cooking to skilled nursing; beds in county nursing homes; health aides and nurses to care for the aged; transportation; and adult day care.

Inevitably, without profound changes in priorities and a massive infusion of money, the gaps will grow worse.

It's easy to see why, when you consider that in the next two decades, the number of Anne Arundel residents ages 60 and over will rise almost 62 percent, five times the rate of the county's overall population, from 56,266 today to 90,951. Within two decades, nearly one in five Anne Arundel residents will be seniors.

Most seniors today generally are healthier and wealthier and living longer and more active lives than a generation ago.

But at the same time, the numbers of sick, frail and poor elderly are growing far faster than the programs, services and housing they need. Such growth will dramatically expand the need for senior housing, care and public transportation -- and could radically alter the face of public policy, government programs and services.

Yet few expect significant increases in state or federal spending.

Therefore, many advocates of the elderly and poor suggest that the county government must expand its efforts and spending to help seniors now or wait and pay more to cope with a bigger crisis later.

Robert R. Neall, who took over as county executive this week, agrees that counties can expect little new money from the state or federal governments.

"Any time you have a major portion of the population that's becoming elderly, that's certainly going to have a big impact on planning," he says.

"And we can't depend on other sources now. Local government is where the rubber meets the road. We have to figure out what these people's needs are and how to meet them."

To that end, Neall says he plans to conduct a thorough assessment of the elderly population and seniors' needs before considering expansions in housing, programs or services.

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