Advocate for seniors is retiring As head of Office on Aging she improved services

October 01, 1995|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As Vivian Reid prepares to step down after 19 years as administrator of the Howard County Office on Aging, her agency is seen as an important safety net for many of the 20,500 county residents age 60 and over.

"We work as a family here," says Miss Reid, 70, a Catonsville resident. "When anybody has a problem, it's everybody's problem. Our staff has grown to about 45 people, and we always rally around each other."

The office, which began as a small operation serving about 50 people at the Oakland Mills Village Center, opens its ninth center tomorrow and its 10th later this month, serving about 3,000 senior citizens each year.

It boasts an operating budget of about $3 million a year, much of which funds programs for seniors who need someone to help care for them.

And it offers a wealth of specialized programs for a population -- those 60 and over -- that state officials estimate will reach nearly 26,000 in Howard County by 2000. Among them:

* A Senior Information and Assistance unit that helps people with problems such as eviction notices, filing insurance claims or heat during the winter.

* Legal services on a sliding scale.

* A counseling and advocacy program that addresses concerns about health insurance.

* A job club that helps train seniors for employment.

The office's success is due in large part to Miss Reid's enthusiastic management style, says one staff member.

"The uniqueness of Vivian is her willingness to be innovative in tackling a problem," says Barbara Harris, who helps direct older residents to county services. "She permits persons to utilize their whole strengths and encourages them to push onward and upward."

Miss Reid's tenure as the agency's second administrator began at a time when county officials were slow to realize that the growing senior population would require specialized services.

"Back then, they were setting up places for youth and other people to meet, but they didn't think the elderly had any problems," Miss Reid recalls. "We wanted a place for people to meet; in case they would have a problem, there would be a place for them to take it to discuss."

Because of its lack of space, the Oakland Mills center provided limited activities, usually sewing or crafts, that were available twice a day. One activity was held in the morning; the other in the afternoon. As funds increased, so did programs and services, including sites where the seniors could get hot meals. And in 1983, the county opened the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia's Harper's Choice Village.

"It became a showcase for the county," says Miss Reid. It allowed seniors to choose from a variety of activities in one convenient location, she says, and its success led to other centers around the county. The agency also has taken on other projects, including oversight of a state-funded subsidized housing program. That program provides 40 units in privately owned buildings where elderly residents can get help with such activities as cooking or dressing.

"We try to keep people in their own community and in their own homes," says Miss Reid.

The agency also offers a state-funded program called Senior Center Plus, which offers help at certain senior centers to frail elderly residents who need assistance in more than one area, including meal preparation, medication or getting in and out of wheelchairs.

"The state developed a program from our model," says Miss Reid. "Ultimately, we became eligible for three times the amount of money that the other counties received. We are risk-takers and it pays off."

As she prepares to leave office, however, Miss Reid warns that state funding is likely to become more scarce and that the county will have to plan carefully if it intends to maintain necessary services for the elderly.

For her part, Miss Reid plans to use her retirement to learn some new skills, such as computer literacy -- and maybe even take a few risks. "I have always been an admirer of Amelia Earhart," she muses. "If I pass the eye exam, I'll learn how to fly."

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