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Posted March 26, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Aging agency provides wealth of information for seniors/familieis
By Elizabeth Smoot - firstname.lastname@example.org
The Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging may be 38 years old, but the organization isn't heading into middle age overweight, sluggish, with eyes on retirement.
The agency is as active as the living centers it operates and full of vigor as it looks for new approaches to meet the needs of the valley's fastest-growing age group.
In the past year, the agency has opened a state of the art active living center in Winchester, received a prestigious award for the creation of a center for individuals with early to mid-stage Alzheimer's, and was honored with a second national award for a program that partners college students and senior citizens. The launching of a small cleaning business to fund services and an effort in its infancy that may one day lead to the creation of senior housing, add to the agency's importance to the local aging population.
Fourteen percent of the Northern Shenandoah Valley population is over the age of 65, according to the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission. As the baby boom generation ages, Virginians age 65 and older are projected to reach 1.8 million by 2030, or one in five residents.
Navigating through the senior years is often difficult for individuals and their caregivers, in large part because they don't know where to turn for help. Too many wait until a crisis situation to seek assistance. For seniors and caregivers in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, the agency on aging cuts through the uncertainty.
"We're the first stop," said SAAA Executive Director Helen M. Cockrell. "If we don't have it or can't provide it, we can get you to the right place."
There are 650 agencies on aging in America. AAAs were established under the Older Americans Act in 1973 to respond to the needs of Americans 60 and over. Yet, despite the presence of AAAs in every state, they often remain invisible to the people they were created to serve.
"We're on every street corner and in every neighborhood in America," says Cockrell, whose agency serves the counties of Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah, Warren and the city of Winchester. "I would hope people would know that, but you'd be surprised how many people don't know we're here to help."
The agency offers a wide variety of services, many of them with the goal of keeping seniors independent, active and in their homes as long as possible. The agency receives federal, state and local funding and supplements that with fundraising and donations.
A new $5.2 million facility attached to the War Memorial Building at Jim Barnett Park in Winchester opened in January. The addition, which added 21,000 square feet of recreation space to the building, features a full gymnasium, fellowship hall, commercial kitchen, recreation room and computer lab. Seniors attending the living center can also use the building's pool, pool table, fitness facilities and outdoor shelters and trails.
On a recent day, about 35 participants, who arrived at the center in one of two agency vans, engaged in conversation while working on a Valentine's Day craft. Kitchen staff prepared about 40 meals for the Meals on Wheels program that would be delivered later that day.
"This is a Taj Mahal," says Diana Brille-Tharpe, director of the new living center. "More people are coming out to see what we have to offer. We're very excited."
Lillian Bradley volunteered with meal preparation at the old center for many years before attending as a participant in the 1990s. "We waited so long," for the new facility, she says. "The center means a lot to me. It's four or five hours you're not sitting at home."
One agency service, the In Home Services program, provides homebound seniors with light housekeeping, personal care and home repairs.
Three group respite centers meet the needs of individuals with Alzheimer's disease or related dementia and their caregivers. The centers provide structured care for participants who enjoy the company of others, activities and a hot meal and snacks. Caregivers receive information and assistance, participate in support group meetings and get a break from providing care.
Our Place-Shenandoah, the agency's respite center in Edinburg, was honored last year with the Anne McKinley Excellence Award for Rural Aging. The National Council on Aging and the National Institute on Community Based Long Term Care makes one award each year to an individual or project that exhibits exceptional leadership in, and contributions to the field of rural aging.
The center, in the old Edinburg Middle School, was opened in March 2004 after a group of community members identified the need. The closest day cares at the time were in Winchester and Harrisonburg. The facility now serves as a model for respite centers all over the country and staff members routinely travel to seminars to teach others how to operate a respite center. The agency has since opened two additional respite centers to serve Warren and Clarke counties and will open a fourth in Page County.
The agency relies primarily upon government money to fund its $3 million budget, but with cuts at the federal, state and local levels, funding is a challenge, Cockrell says. Expenses escalate and the need grows as our population ages.
The agency's Home Tasks program addresses that problem. The small cleaning service is available for individuals and small businesses. All revenues generated go to providing agency services. Unlike government funding which dictates where the money must be spent, revenue from the Home Tasks program can be used as the agency sees fit. The agency averages about 30 cleaning jobs a month.
Another program developed by the agency gives experience to college students in health-related fields. Started in 2002 with just two nursing interns, the agency now places more than 100 students from Eastern Mennonite College, James Madison University, George Mason University, Shenandoah University, Lord Fairfax Community College and Page County Vo-Tech in the active living centers, respite centers and with many homebound clients.
The partnership program recently received the Commonwealth Council on Aging's Best Practices Award in the Community Partnership category, beating out more than 30 other proposals.
"There's a huge dearth of geriatric practitioners. We try to get young students interested in aging practices," Cockrell says.
Transportation is another issue that challenges the agency. Many of their clients have no ability to get around. Agency vans transport clients to and from the living centers and a new grant is making it possible to provide transportation for people who need rides to doctor's appointments, shopping and other errands. The grant, which has established the Well Tran program and totals about $90,000, is in partnership with Access Independence. It also provides transportation for people over 18 with disabilities.
Clients of all income levels are eligible to receive services from the agency. Most clients must receive an assessment from a case manager.
In addition, the agency provides insurance counseling, tax help and information and referral about other community resources. An ombudsman is available to advocate for residents of long-term care facilities and their families.
The agency is addressing another need in the community, recently becoming certified as a Community Housing Development organization, which allows it to develop senior housing.
"We see a need for quality, affordable senior housing and we are looking at ways to make that happen," Cockrell says.
Whatever the need, the agency on aging stands ready to help this most vulnerable population.
"Everything we do is to help folks stay in their homes and independent as long as possible," Cockrell says. "It could be as simple as a meal or could be getting them out of their homes to socialize. Folks want to age where they want and not where people tell them."
Related category entriesThis story was filed in the Valley Seniors category. View more entries in this category:
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