By Amy Wight Chapman
What makes a community age-friendly? How can the needs of seniors living in rural communities be addressed to allow them to “age in place”? What benefits does the Bethel area already offer to seniors, and what is missing?
Bethel’s Age-Friendly Community Project was initiated this summer, inspired by the work of public health researcher Atul Gawande and a growing national movement to support the concept of aging in place.
Launched by a team of volunteers who are exploring ways to make Bethel more supportive of healthy aging and to make it possible for people to stay in their own homes as they age, the AFCP is reaching out to the community for input.
Two public gatherings for community members are scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. and Thursday, Oct. 15 at 1:30 p.m. at the Bethel Alliance Church.
Besides providing an opportunity for discussion, the AFCP planning team will introduce a survey, to be distributed throughout the Bethel community to residents 50 and over.
The survey is a tool for assessing needs across several areas, or domains, which have been identified by AARP and the World Health Organization as influencing the health and quality of life of older adults.
“The questions will address housing, transportation, social activities, health care, and more,” said Jackie Cressy, coordinator for the AFCP planning team.
She said that questions regarding transportation, for example, might ask respondents how they get around for things like shopping, medical appointments, and errands. They will also be asked to rate various resources and services in terms of their importance to the Bethel community.
“We are working on developing a survey that specifically targets Bethel’s situation, rather than using the more generic one provided by the AARP,” Cressy said.
The AFCP planning team hopes that the choice of times will allow more people to attend one of the initial public gatherings.
“We are really hoping for a great turnout for these meetings, because they will offer a chance for people to tell us what they think, besides giving us the responses on the survey,” Cressy said.
It began with a book
The local AFCP got its start last winter, after Jan Stowell of Bethel read Gawande’s most recent book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, and shared it with Cressy and her husband.
“Allen and I found it to be one of the most powerful and significant books we have read, and everyone we talked to about it said the same,” said Cressy.
“Its main thrust was end-of-life care and the decisions that people need to make around that difficult subject, but it also addressed how people could be assisted to remain in their own homes as they age, regardless of their state of health.”
The Cressys proposed a two-part series of presentations based on the book to the To Your Health committee of the Western Mountains Senior College, and the programs were added to the spring schedule.
In March, Jackie Cressy and Rosabelle Tifft, chair of the To Your Health committee, attended the monthly meeting of the Oxford County Chapter of AARP.
There they met Peter Morelli, the Maine AARP coordinator for Age-Friendly-Communities, and asked him to be one of the presenters for the second program, which addressed models for aging in place.
When more than 60 people attended the May presentation, Cressy said, “We realized at that moment just how important this topic was to the community.”
In June, Morelli held an initial meeting in Bethel with ten members of the AFCP planning team.
“We concluded at the end of it that we definitely wanted to get started on this project,” Cressy said, and the team continued to meet every two weeks throughout the summer.
“We have begun reaching out to community groups like Rotary, the Senior Citizens group, Senior College, the Community Networking Breakfast sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, and the Bethel Area Nonprofit Collaborative, to alert them to our efforts and ask them to spread the word to their members about the upcoming October gatherings.”
Cressy said that in order to help tailor their work to the unique circumstances of seniors in more rural areas, the group has relied heavily on a Canadian report, inspired by the WHO’s Global Age-Friendly Cities Project, that focuses specifically on healthy aging in rural and remote communities.
“We have actually found that more helpful than a report about Portland,” she said.
Joining the network
One important first step for the project is membership in AARP’s Network of Age-Friendly Communities. In partnership with WHO, the network supports towns in evaluating existing resources, identifying needs, and working to address them.
On September 14, members of the AFCP committee will present their ideas to the Bethel Board of Selectmen and seek the town’s support for its application for membership in the network.
Once membership is formalized, the town would act as the AFCP’s fiscal agent in its application for grant funding from the AARP.
There is no fee to join the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities, but Cressy said it was important to note that individual towns must join the network in order to participate.
“So the survey will just focus on what Bethel residents think,” she said.
“However, we know from past experience that whatever happens in this community has a ripple effect that extends to other nearby communities. Other towns are welcome to go through this same process, and our planning team and AARP are ready to help.”