Focusing on senior priorities

Thu, 07/11/2019 - 6:00pm

As the Senior Advisory Committee’s June 18 meeting was ending, The Block Island Times asked a question: What are your key priorities? What are the things that have to be solved first to meet the needs of Block Island’s elder (and aging) population?

The first answer: Without hesitation, Co-Chair Sandra Kelly said, “Caregivers.” Having a supply of people to care for island residents in their homes. And with that, on-island housing for caregivers.

The availability of caregivers has been the number one challenge for the committee and its Senior Coordinator, currently Gloria Redlich. Every person who has worked in that position has  dealt with this issue. Every meeting, every report by Redlich, has included new (and follow-up) tales of families looking for help for their loved ones in their homes. And it’s not just the year-round residents any more. Seasonal residents who live on the island for extended periods are also calling Redlich for referrals.

Redlich began by referring inquirers to island residents who had the experience and reputation as responsible and caring people. None of these caregivers have formal training. None have certifications that would allow their services to be paid for by private or government insurance; it’s all private pay.

Those folk are all working, all committed. And they have housing. Even if they care for two people during a day, they either have their own housing or have been able to piece together a housing arrangement, perhaps in exchange for the care they provide.

Recently, demand has grown and more people are asking for help finding caregivers. Redlich reports that a small number of people are coming to the island with experience and maybe with certification, perhaps as a Certified Nursing Assistant or CNA; maybe even with connections to the island. But they still need to live somewhere, and may not be able to support themselves on personal caregiving work alone.

Caregivers “may have the possibility” of work on the island, said Kelly, “but they need someplace to stay.”

The number two priority: “Transportation,” enabling seniors (and anyone with disabilities) to get out of their homes and engage in the community, participate in activities. Transportation also involves access to medical services, whether to the Block Island Medical Center (for primary care and for visiting specialists), or to mainland doctors and services.

The Senior Advisory Committee has supported transportation initiatives during the years. Friends in Service Helping, or FISH, offered on-island rides using volunteer drivers, among other services. Now, however, FISH is dormant, without enough willing volunteers to help, and no requests.

The committee sponsored shuttle services during the off-season, both on-island and off-island, with the cooperation of the town Recreation Department. In the past two years, Recreation Assistant Cindy Lemon has driven the Early Learning Center’s van to take people from their homes to destinations in town — such as the Medical Center, the grocery store, the Post Office and the Island Free Library. For a while, the shuttle was scheduled on selected Wednesdays to coincide with the library’s weekly movie matinees. Library Director Kristin Baumann was supportive.

In practice, very few people took advantage of the on-island shuttle. A few runs were scheduled over several months, with low participation. It did not catch on.

Neither did the off-island shuttle, scheduled monthly during the winter, with Lemon driving the Recreation Department’s van parked in Point Judith. A few people made reservations to be driven to medical appointments or shopping on the monthly trips. Again, participation was very low, and it was dropped.

In the winter of 2019, the committee’s latest venture was a success. The Senior Ride Service used a portion of a state grant to subsidize taxi rides. Riders registered with the Senior Coordinator, who provided the list to the two cab owners operating during the winter. Riders called the cabs directly to be picked up and driven to on-island destinations, paying the driver a nominal fee of $3.00 per ride. The owners, happy for the business in the slowest part of the year, billed the town for the balance of the established fare, paid from the grant. 

The SRS program was enough of a success that the small grant was exhausted before the winter was over. An infusion from a local charitable fund helped to pay the cab owners, but the SAC was unable to continue the service without more funding from either the town or the state.

Priority number three from the SAC members was phrased as “recognition.” By that, they meant “more budget support” from the town for senior services. Beyond trying to solve the transportation issue, the committee sponsors, facilitates or subsidizes a variety of activities: presentations by health and social service agencies (Alzheimer’s Association, Parkinson’s Association, Tri-Town Community Action Agency); health-related programs (yoga, exercise, Tai Chi); cultural and social events both on and off-island (theatre, historic sites, tea and cocktail parties); and a support group for caregivers.

With a larger budget approved for senior services in the new fiscal year, and looking for more grant funds beyond the town, they hope to re-start the Senior Ride Service and expand on other programs.

Member Jennifer Phillips crystallized the SAC’s goal: “Allowing people who want to remain on Block Island with a good quality of life to remain here, and not go to the mainland.” 

“For as long as possible,” Kelly added.

Supporting aging in place, Kelly continued, “is becoming a goal for the federal and state governments, because they realize that financially it’s also much better to keep someone at home than to have to put them in a nursing home,” especially if the care can be provided at home.

Now there is a goal to work towards: Enabling people to age in place, with the support they need for a good quality of life, and able to get around and about, and housing for the people who make all that possible.