A panel of area leaders spoke Monday at Charlottesville’s Senior Center on the future of aging in the region. The conversation was part of a viewing party for the White House Conference on Aging, which covered topics including finance, healthy aging and technology for seniors.
The lunchtime panel, which was moderated by Marta Keane, executive director of the Jefferson Area Board for Aging, offered an opportunity for area leaders to reflect on topics covered during the White House conference and focus the conversation on local issues.
A resounding theme among panelists was the importance of working together to create communities that are healthy for all ages.
“I think we talk a lot about ‘aging in place,’” said panelist Dr. Richard Lindsay, the former chief of geriatrics at the University of Virginia Medical Center and a member of the Commonwealth Council on Aging. “I never liked that term. I prefer the phrase ‘aging in community.’”
“Unless you’re in a neighborhood or a place where people care about each other, then you’re going to be very lonely,” Lindsay said. “You can get old and pass away in your house, but you’re not going to have anyone there with you.”
As the baby boomer generation continues to age, the issues facing seniors in the area will require creative problem solving to meet the needs of the community.
“In the next 10 years, one out of every four people in our planning district will be over 65 years old,” Keane said. “How should we address an increasing number of people over 65 and the fact that people are living longer? We have a lot of different needs when you look at over 30 years of aging.”
Panelist Kathy Galvin, a member of Charlottesville’s City Council, commended urban design that clusters commercial development in areas that are walkable and bikeable to neighborhoods.
“I work to create environments that are conducive to living a long life,” Galvin said. “This means creating places where people can be active. There is no reason that people over 60 can’t be riding bikes. To create independence, we need to consider the physical design of places.”
The panelists also encouraged seniors to become part of the problem-solving process and get involved in their communities.
“Do you know the only natural resource in this country that’s not disappearing?” asked Lindsay. “It’s elderly people. We’re underutilized. The depths of talent in this community need to be tapped.”
Galvin recommended that seniors consider running for public office to make sure the perspectives of their generation are reflected in local policies.
“We need people with experience, integrity and stature in the community to represent us,” she said.
The panelists agreed that breaking down the barrier of age is key to creating a healthy, vibrant community. Multi-generational interactions, such as the preschool located at a JABA senior center, were mentioned as powerful tools to change cultural attitudes about aging.
“The biggest illness I see in elderly people is loneliness,” Lindsay said. “But you mix them with the younger generations, and it’s like a light is turned on. People come alive, they animate and most importantly, there’s an exchange of information.”
Panelist Brad Sheffield, an Albemarle County supervisor and executive director of the JAUNT public transit system, agreed.
“It’s interesting to see through my kids’ eyes,” said Sheffield of his teenage children. “They see the value of the older generation, and providing them with the opportunity to interact with older adults is really important. I don’t think I’m going to have to force my kids to volunteer at the senior center. I think they’re going to enjoy that.”
Looking to the future, the panelists shared practical solutions to meet the needs of the aging population.
“JAUNT was founded on the concept of coordination,” said Sheffield. “For example, there are many programs needing transportation that are funded by the federal government. If you bring all those needs and resources together, you’re able to do more with what you have.”
Lindsay offered ideas for integrating education about and experiences with the elderly into the school systems. Galvin stressed the importance of co-location of services to serve the needs of all residents in pedestrian-friendly locations.
Keeping with the spirit of community, the panelists emphasized that the experiences that are shared are the places where communities can come together.
“We tend to self-segregate on many different levels: race, class, age, even if you live in the city or the county,” said Galvin. “But we breathe the same air and drink the same water. I see great opportunities to learn across generations. As we do that, we’ll bring back the idea of being respected as you get older. We can be a place where people come to grow old.”