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Rural Aging in Place Initiative Focuses on Adirondack Communities

Release Date: October 12, 2010

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Mercy Care for the Adirondacks and the University at Buffalo have helped three communities in New York's Adirondack Mountains develop plans to help older residents "age in place," engaging community volunteers in a grassroots planning process that could serve as a model for other rural communities.

Aging in place is a national movement that aims to enable older Americans to age successfully in a residential setting of their choice, including in their own homes.

With support from UB, Mercy Care facilitated a year-long planning process during which community volunteers in Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake assessed the needs of elder residents and drafted action plans detailing improvements in housing, transportation, social engagement, and health and human services that could help elder residents age in place.

A report released in August describes the planning process and the community plans, which call for actions -- among others -- that include:

- Training builders and contractors to design homes that older residents can easily navigate

- Establishing a door-to-door transportation service for all elders in the Tri-Lakes region comprising Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake and surrounding areas

- Developing a medical transportation system that includes out-of-area transportation for medical services unavailable locally

- Encouraging local colleges to offer affordable or subsidized computer training classes to older adults, who can keep in touch with loved ones and access news and entertainment through the Internet

The full report, including the complete community proposals, is here.

Historically, urban areas have been the focus of aging in place efforts, receiving more resources and attention from policymakers and charitable foundations, says Susan Hunter, a senior research associate at UB's Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA Center). Hunter worked on the Adirondack initiative, providing community volunteers with background information on aging in place and partnering with Mercy Care Executive Director Donna Beal to write the August report.

The assumption that rural communities can easily adapt aging in place plans crafted for urban environments is faulty, Hunter said.

Michael J. Burgess, director of the New York State Office for the Aging, which helped to fund the Adirondack project through a community empowerment grant, said while aging residents in rural and urban areas have many similar needs, developing aging in place plans specific to rural areas is crucial.

"Providing assistance to rural communities to plan initiatives that assist the elderly in those areas is of particular importance because of the inherent relative isolation in rural areas," Burgess said. "Distances to community centers and program and services providers are greater, making it important to devise models that keep the elderly in touch with community supports and resources. The challenge of reaching the elderly in rural areas and connecting them to appropriate supports and programming often means using non-traditional approaches."

Hunter and Beal hope the planning efforts in Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake will encourage rural communities throughout New York State and the nation to begin developing their own plans.

As part of the Adirondack project, volunteers interviewed town leaders and residents; surveyed and conducted focus groups with aging residents; and inventoried residential and community services for the aging.

Among the findings of the volunteers' community assessment: Friendship and companionship are major priorities for aging residents in an area where harsh winters and long drives can limit social opportunities. In a survey of 203 residents age 55 and up, 74 percent ranked "friendship and companionship" as "very important," higher than the percentage who felt transportation was "very important." Nearly a third of respondents said they would like or might like a friendship volunteer to visit.

"We all know that developing a plan is a very necessary and important step to achieving systemic change and overcoming obstacles," Beal said. "But the hard work comes once the plan is completed and published. What is remarkable is the enthusiasm and energy we have found in the Tri-Lakes region of the Adirondacks to implement it. The first Aging in Place Implementation meeting was held on Sept. 29 in Saranac Lake, where more than 20 community leaders and elders, including the mayor of Lake Placid, got down to work."

Mercy Care for the Adirondacks is a mission sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy to enhance in every dimension the fullness of life of elders living in their community independently. It is supported solely through charitable contributions and grants. Mercy Care is a renewed mission of the Sisters of Mercy who first came to the Adirondacks in 1895 to establish Sanitorium Gabriels to treat tubercular patients. Its work is carried out through a Friendship Volunteer Program, a Faith Community Nurse Program, and an Education and Advocacy Program. Mercy Care offers its services to any older adult in need.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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