With Carroll's rapidly growing senior population, county officials can expect demands for more health care services, less costly prescriptions, improved transportation and even discounts on garbage collection.
"The age wave is coming and it is going to need services," Michael R. Lachance, a legislative liaison for the Maryland Department of Aging, told Carroll officials during a town meeting on senior needs at Westminster Senior Center yesterday. About 75 people attended the three-hour meeting.
The county Commission on Aging organized the meeting to gather information on senior needs, data that will be forwarded to state legislators. Similar town meetings are occurring throughout Maryland to help local, state and federal officials identify priorities for seniors.
"The state has a surplus and we want to make sure they don't forget seniors," said Peg Sheeler, a Carroll commission member.
If the Carroll session is any indication, government must increase funding for seniors and training for those providing care to them. Residents and officials discussed the high cost of staying healthy, long-term care, government-funded programs, dwindling retirement benefits and transportation.
Within five years, Carroll County seniors will account for 21 percent of the population. Residents older than age 60 number 21,454, or 14 percent of the nearly 150,000 people who call the county home, and they are increasing in greater numbers than any segment of the population, according to the Maryland Office of Planning.
Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge called the meeting an eye-opener. The county wants to do all it can to make seniors a part of the community, but she is unsure how Carroll will fund increased services and programs, she said.
"We are dealing with these issues as employers and wondering how we will serve our retirees in the future," Gouge said. "We need to be aware of what is happening. We know there are many seniors out there without insurance and many are doing without care."
Years ago, the chronically ill often spent their final days in nursing homes. Now, many can remain in their homes with care provided by visiting nurses or they can move to assisted-living residences - if the government can provide funding.
"The cost of long-term care is often beyond the savings and income of most people," said Lachance. "We have to develop an infrastructure of licensed facilities and create a broader array of approved service providers. We want to keep people in their homes and in assisted living for longer periods of time. If we don't put in community services, we will be paying the nursing home bill later."
Advocacy for the elderly and the need for more health care workers were the underlying themes of the conference.
Carolyn Jennings of Upperco spoke from her experience as the primary caregiver for the five years that her husband struggled with the effects of a stroke. Adult day care cost them $85 a day and prescriptions figured heavily into monthly expenses.
"I could write books about everything they talked about today and fighting the system," said Jennings, 73. "Thank God he was a veteran and could get veterans' benefits. But nobody told me. I had to research all of it for myself."
Carroll has 19 licensed assisted-living homes, with many more applications pending for such businesses. Yet the county has only four assisted-living beds available.
In addition to more spaces, the county must ensure that the rights of elderly residents are protected, said Sharon Baker, client services supervisor for the bureau of aging. But with an unemployment rate among the lowest in the metropolitan area, workers are scarce.
"In the last two years, the number of assisted-living beds have doubled in the county," said Baker. "We have the financial ability to pay for care but we cannot find providers."
For Wayne Kirker, a 76-year-old retired physical therapist from Eldersburg, transportation is the most critical issue.
He drove to the meeting, hoping to learn what transportation the county has available when he can no longer drive. Until yesterday, he had not heard of Carroll Transit, a nonprofit commuter service with 25 vehicles carrying 9,000 riders annually throughout the county.
The majority of those riders are going to doctors' appointments or senior centers. Shopping trips, a visit to the hairdresser or social outings are often problematic.
"Whether you live in a metropolitan or rural area, there is insufficient transportation available for those who cannot rely on their own vehicles," said Lachance. "There is also the issue of older drivers and whether they can be safe drivers. Before you remove them from the roads, you must have options to provide them with the transportation they need."