Knutsen: Aging well at home requires help

Looking out the car window at the droves of people heading to Austin’s seasonal music fests, or driving down South Congress Avenue and dodging strollers, you’d think Austin was a city of people ages 20 to 40 living for entertainment.

On June 26, American-Statesman reporter Marty Toohey wrote that what we see is not necessarily who we are:

“The senior population in the Austin area grew at a faster rate than any other age group between April 2010 and July 2013. Recent census estimates bolster a previous city report that found Austin has the third-fastest growing senior population in the country, and the nation’s fastest growing “pre-senior” population, or those 55 to 64.”

In Travis County there are more than 34,000 people ages 65 to 69, a 32 percent increase since 2010, with similar increases in Williamson and Hays counties.

Last summer, Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s “Mayor’s Task Force on Aging” released a major study on the anticipated effects of Austin’s aging population.

The task force concluded with three community goals and three goals for the city of Austin. Each goal listed practical, and almost obvious strategies. They are, for the community:

  • Focus on healthy living
  • Focus on independence to help people stay in their own homes as they decline
  • Focus on keeping the community informed about services

For the city of Austin, the items are:

  • Create policies that include age issues
  • Make affordable housing a municipal priority
  • Integrate seniors into the city’s civic life

Each morning, I wake surprised that my wife and I are now contributing to that aging population. But we also contribute to helping it: I volunteer with Drive a Senior, a Faith in Action Program (formerly Faith in Action Caregivers), and with Capital City Village.

Both groups’ focus is to help people remain in their homes as they age. Drive a Senior, provides assistance to seniors in the form of helping with house chores and transporting those who no longer drive. It’s a collaborative of nine programs ranging east to Elgin and north to Georgetown, as well as Austin proper.

Capital City Village is a member-supported association, a kind of co-operative of people approaching retirement and senior citizenship who have formed a virtual community to enable us to remain healthy and active in our own homes.

The group addresses the key issue stated in the task force’s Item 2: “Most seniors want to age in their home and community for as long as possible.” Our motto is “Live Well at Home.”

Being home alone is not easy. For a person who can’t drive, home becomes a prison. I’ve learned that from my Drive a Senior clients. A retired music teacher told me that her two allotted drives a week are her only outings. Another woman stated flatly recently that she never gets out and misses being with other people.

Last year when one of our members broke his thigh bone, Capital City Village members coordinated the installation of medical assistance equipment in his house and cleared pathways so he could move safely using a walker. Note that this kind of support is another of the strategies the mayor’s task force identified.

This city is changing. And one thing I know for certain is that we can’t count on our children to care for us as we decline. In our family, our two children reside in other states, so they’re too far away. I also have driven several clients whose children died before them, leaving them without any family to offer assistance.

The wisest comment I’ve heard on this subject came from a member of our church whose health and strength were failing. She was walking toward our sanctuary one Sunday morning, leaning on the arm of a young woman she especially liked, and said, “It takes a whole village to get me to church.”

Knutsen is a volunteer and board member for Drive a Senior in West Austin. He also volunteers for Capital City Village.

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