County focuses on attracting and keeping seniors

Services: With its older population expected to triple by 2030, Howard is doing what it can to keep the less-demanding residents happy and around.

March 23, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

AT age 77, state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman is "aging in place," to use the modern jargon, though he might disdain that description of his life as one of western Howard County's most active senior citizens.

"The doggoned cows got into my hay bales this morning, and I had a doggoned tough time getting them out," the veteran farmer/senator said about his daily pre-Annapolis regimen.

No retirement homes in Florida or Arizona for him, either.

"They're going to carry me out feet first; I'm attached to the land," he said about his family's 116-acre farm in West Friendship. "I know all the trees, the big oaks. I walk around, and what that does for me is what church does for other people."

Few county residents his age likely share the depth of Kittleman's roots and commitment to Howard County, however, and county officials are working to keep and attract more of those who might think of living in warmer, snow-free climes.

Without children in school or a need for other county services, retired people and their tax revenues are an attractive asset for any economy, which is why county government is expanding and improving senior centers in Columbia and Glenelg, encouraging more housing aimed at older residents and generally beefing up senior services.

County Executive James N. Robey did not create a separate Department of Aging, as his transition team recommended in early 1999, but Robey has expanded senior services in other ways.

"Howard County has more senior housing providers than any other place in the state," said Duane St. Clair, assistant administrator of the Office on Aging. "That's kind of unusual."

Office Director Phyllis Madachy is organizing a trip to Denmark to see if Danish housing innovations for seniors would work locally, St. Clair said. Also, the Horizon Foundation sponsored a national conference last year on keeping seniors in their homes.

The county's senior population is expected to triple by 2030, when slightly more than a fourth of the population is expected to be 60 or older. But county officials are working to get ready.

Two years ago, the County Council adopted a special "floating zone" to encourage more housing aimed at the senior market, and the county began holding an annual 50+ Expo in 1999.

A new Ellicott City Senior Center was completed last year, and the Florence Bain Senior Center in Harper's Choice in Columbia is due for expansion and renovation this year.

The Robey administration has plans to build a center in the western county, at the edge of the Western Regional Park.

But questions about the graying of the county still beg answers.

How will elderly people get around if they can no longer drive themselves safely? Is enough housing aimed at the senior market, for the well-off and those of low or moderate income? Are enough activities and health services available to keep retirees happy, healthy and occupied?

Madachy's office helped do research for a state government study of older drivers, and the county's private Transportation Advocates group heard recently about an innovative private senior transportation cooperative in Maine that provided 18,000 trips for older people who can no longer drive and need help getting into and out of vehicles.

The Columbia Association has had a senior ride program staffed with volunteers for five years. However, the advocates are concerned about people who can't use the existing services, which are often limited to medical or senior center destinations, and drivers not being provided to help frail elderly who can't get from their homes into or out of the vehicles.

The planned town of Columbia -- once inhabited almost exclusively with young families and children is changing, too.

More high-rise housing and services are coming to Town Center. Hickory Crest, a high-end development of wide, one-level or two-level townhouses designed for "active" seniors 55 and older, sold well next to the Hickory Ridge Village Center.

County Office on Aging figures show that Howard County has 82 small group assisted living homes, and seven large commercial assisted-living buildings. In addition, fifteen new housing developments aimed at active seniors in the processing pipeline.

But while many baby boomers are looking eagerly toward retirement, some well past retirement age are not.

"I waited a long time to have a Republican governor," said Kittleman, a 20-year Republican legislator, about Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "Now I can really do some things I couldn't do before."

Senior Resources

Senior centers: Centers around the county are hubs for recreation, education and social activities. They provide daily lunch programs, health screenings, information and referral services. 410-313-6450.

Senior information and assistance: 410-313-7212, e-mail: aging@co.ho.md.us

Senior volunteer opportunities: Regina Jenkins, 410-313-1417, e-mail: rjenkins@co.ho.md.us

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