Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Council On Aging, February 23, 2023
This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. It can be viewed here.
With assistance from the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), Amherst has studied measures the town should take to serve the needs of its senior population, with special attention to those with dementia. PVPC Senior Planner Becky Basch reported to the town’s Council on Aging on the findings of the study on age- and dementia-friendly communities and the recommendations for Amherst. The report was based on a survey in Amherst conducted over the last year that garnered over 900 responses and produced several public forums. She noted that both the “built environment” and the social environment are important to healthy aging.
Additional Resources To Meet Needs Of Those With Dementia And Caregivers
Basch noted the need to build awareness, acceptance, and a culture of support for people living with dementia and those who care for them. She suggested ongoing training for caregivers and volunteers through Jewish Family Services in Springfield. She also recommended that public safety personnel develop a registry of Amherst residents with dementia.
CRESS Director Earl Miller said that one-third of the calls for CRESS services are from seniors, and many of them have dementia. Fire Chief Tim Nelson said that although his department and the police department have a registry of residents with dementia, they are restricted in how they can share the information. The Senior Center can help caregivers access needed resources, and Director Hayley Bolton knows the identities of many residents with dementia, but there is no single entity for concerned caregivers to go to, for example to alert the town when someone may need extra care before there is a problem, such as wandering.
Miller also noted that caregivers often have conflicting emotions about changing relationships between them and the person they are caring for, especially in terms of a child caring for a parent with dementia, and that caregiver support, education, and respite is important.
Housing Presents Concern For Seniors
Although the senior survey showed that most seniors in Amherst want to remain in their homes, there are many barriers preventing that . For example, seniors can have a difficult time managing household costs, repairs, and everyday tasks. For these, the PVPC recommends tax rebates, flexible parking arrangements, home modifications, and more services nearby. Several participants in the discussion mentioned that seniors could rent rooms to graduate students who provide support services. Another barrier for seniors is isolation, which could be minimized through access to outside programs.
For those who must change their living arrangements, a range of housing options is needed, such as smaller rentals and first-floor rentals.. Several people mentioned congregate housing, where a group of people live together and share tasks, although former Housing Trust Chair John Hornik said that this type of arrangement has to be managed by a professional agency or a group of dedicated people. He told the council that many of the options for senior housing are not affordable for most seniors, and said that advocacy promoting funding for a variety of options is necessary on both the local and state levels.
Transportation Is A Limitation For Many Seniors
Liz Welch, clerk of Amherst Neighbors, said that most of the requests for services the group receives are for transportation. Few seniors take the PVTA buses, she said, because the bus stops are far apart, sidewalk access to the bus stops is often poor,, and most of the buses run infrequently when the university and colleges are not in session. Bolton pointed out that the Senior Center’s para van is available seven days a week for door-to-door service, but must be reserved in advance. Basch suggested exploring the possibility of contracting with Uber or Lyft to provide service for seniors who don’t drive or don’t own a car. She also suggested reimbursing volunteer drivers for time and gas. These limitations on senior-friendly transportation should be approached with the town’s Complete Streets Policy.
Snow removal and sidewalk repairs were also highlighted as being impediments to the mobility of seniors. Participants suggested partnering with students in town to shovel snow.
Lack of Health And Community Services Is A Limitation For Seniors In Amherst
Amherst Neighbors provides many services for the town’s seniors, but there is still a shortage of health services in general and a severe shortage of home health aides, without whom many seniors must move out of their homes. Discussion participants pointed to the UMass School of Nursing for possible resources. There are also assistance programs run by Cooley Dickinson Hospital, Highland Family Elders, and Pioneer Valley Memory Care. Most importantly, the group thought it was important to lobby for increased wages for home health aides, and to advocate for Medicare to reimburse patients for home care.
Buildings And Outdoor Spaces: We Need A New Senior Center
Amherst has 80 miles of trails and shared use paths with most having accessible parking nearby. The Senior Center has a guide to the trails that is available in print and online. The group argued for pocket parks in each village center and for expanded recreational opportunities for elders, such as pickleball courts.
Several people pointed to the inadequacy of Amherst’s Senior Center in the Bangs Center, which is seen as too small and outdated, and lacks sufficient accessible parking nearby. Bolton said that she has begun conversations about a new senior center with the town manager, and reported that he is willing to work on it, but the conversation is just beginning.
Basch said she will update the PVPC report, adding the suggestions from this meeting. She pointed out that some aspects of the action plan have already been implemented, such as a weekly “Can’t Remember Café” to help seniors with isolation, and a new senior van to help with transportation. A revised report and action plan will be issued, and a follow-up meeting may be scheduled.