When you’re interning in your hometown, you will end up talking to friends and family about the issues at hand. I’m interning with the Oberlin Recreation Department this spring, working toward an associates degree in Public Administration. The topic: finding more ways to provide services to seniors. This is an interview with my mother, Prue Richards, who is the financial secretary for Oberlin Weekday Community Meals. Surely, they serve seniors. They serve people in financial need (and their number of meals served rose dramatically from 2019 to 2020. But when they can get back to doing meals in person — and they serve anyone, regardless of financial need — they represent a community connection that has been drawn out in conversations this spring as being as necessary as new services themselves. Community creates a connection to services. Community helps seniors access those services.
Note: The following March interview was conducted as part of my internship with the city of Oberlin Recreation Department in the spring of 2021. The question being asked: How can the city better meet the needs of its senior citizen population? In this interview I spoke with Dona Wishart, the chairperson of the Michigan Commission on Aging. I knew of her from 10 years living in Otsego County Michigan where I worked as a reporter for the Gaylord Herald Times. She currently also works as the executive director of the Otsego County Commission on Aging. While I did record the interview, technical difficulties made it less than desirable to post as a podcast the way I did with others.
Dona Wishart, the executive director of the Otsego County Commission on Aging, also chairs the Michigan Commission on Services to the Aging, the state office that the Michigan Communities for a Lifetime came out of. Otsego County was the first county to conduct an assessment in 2007.
“The project itself is not unique to Michigan nor is it one project that stands alone,” said Wishart. “There are a number of program and assessment tools across the country that look at asset areas across the community that would be important to older adults.”
As many of these interviews have revealed, Wishart observed services shown to be important to seniors can be important to others as well.
“Public transportation. When we have buses that have lifts on them it may help mothers with strollers,” she said. Otsego County has a population of 24,000 with the city of Gaylord, population 3,500, as the business center. Oberlin is a city of 8,500 in a county of 309,000.
“The project as designed and worked on in the state of Michigan looked at a number of asset areas,” Wishart offered, listing walkability, supportive community systems, access to health care, safety and security, housing availability and affordability, housing modification and maintenance, public transportation, commerce, enrichment and inclusion among the many.
Otsego County established committee, a prospect broached in a spring questionnaire published online only as part of this internship. Roughly two-thirds of the 70-plus respondents indicated they would not be interested in serving on such a committee.
“They imagined what was good in our community, which of those needed work and which of those projects might be done with the resources available,” Wishart explained. “Probably the primary outcome was the raising of awareness of the importance of these asset areas to make our community a place that is age friendly, a place where people can age in place successfully and a great place for all generations to call home.”
Simple actions included replacing city street signs with those which had larger lettering. These actions, she explained, were not directly tied to the committee’s work but likely instead came from raised awareness of issues. As such, there was not a single or central budget that made improvements possible. The intention in raising awareness, she explained, was to access business and governments that could access funding.
Additional actions included lengthening the times to use crosswalks.
To raise community awareness and committee interest, Wishart recommended using local media outlets such as newspaper and radio advertising, but also just word of mouth.
“In a small community we know each other. I knew which people in our community were community leaders. I knew people in our community to be doers or not. There was some careful orchestration of who to ask.”
When asked about “low-hanging fruit” the committee and survey work revealed, Wishart was quick to point out the “importance of access to healthcare.”
“But then, when we talk about transportation to health care, that’s another issue,” she pointed out. “We now have a volunteer medical transportation program. Part of it involves public transportation and part of it involves volunteer transportation.” The service provides transportation to local facilities but also to specialists in other parts of the state that might be hours away by car.
“The beauty of doing an assessment for your own community is that it measures resources and fortitude,” Wishart observed.
“Our society is an aging population across this country and beyond. There has been significant growth in the older population and a shift in the demographics in each and every community.”
I would say most all communities are dealing with an aging population. For Otsego County specifically we are thinking about 23 percent of our population as being older adults. Of course different programs and services use different measures.”
Wishart, who went so far as to recommend getting a demographer involved, pointed out the country’s aging population will be “an important factor through 2030” with a decline in aging by 2050.
Other important issues Wishart mentioned included the impacts of ageism on a community, talking with businesses about aging relation to mobility, hearing and vision issues.
“Master plans should have awareness of every department on aging,” she finished.
Note: The following March interview was conducted as part of my internship with the city of Oberlin Recreation Department in the spring of 2021. The question being asked: How can the city better meet the needs of its senior citizen population? In this interview I spoke with Stephanie Clark, former program coordinator at the Neighborhood Alliance in Oberlin. We did not record the interview.
Stephanie Clark, formerly the program coordinator for the Neighborhood Alliance in Oberlin, now works as the intake monitor at the Haven Center. Prior to the novel coroner virus pandemic, the Neighborhood Alliance provided lunch for seniors twice a week (Mondays and Fridays), offered exercise classes twice a week and hosted a movie and a snack once per week. Once each week she also led a caregiver support group. She said many seniors are taking care of their elderly spouses.
“If seniors ever needed personal help I could help them with things like Social Security. We had a food pantry that they could utilize, anyone in the county could. The food pantry is still there if they need it.”
The Oberlin senior center “had almost 100 members but on a regular basis I would see the same 40 our so.” Clark defined “senior citizens,” or those who accessed her services as people as young as 55 or 60, but said the center had a couple people who were 50 as users.
The center closed in March 2020 as a result of the coroner virus pandemic.
“A few of them cried. They were all very disappointed,” Clark reported. They wanted it to stay open regardless of the pandemic. None of them were scared of it. It wasn’t my choice to close either. Once or twice a week I would call everybody to do wellness checks. I did deliver some supplies to them if they needed anything. And we have interns who are still making wellness check phone calls.”
Clark echoed community concerns about transportation “because transportation is a problem for people in Lorain County. Some of the people did carpool to get to the center, but other than coming to the center there was always a need for transportation still.
“I wish there were more services we could provide. I do live in Oberlin. I do know a lot of what seniors need. Transportation, financial assistance. When I became a social worker, seniors was my target population. A lot of them need help navigating Social Security. Getting help to them to get supplies and things. And since the center is closed they don’t really have some place to go to socialize.”
Six or seven years after doing more than 50 oral history interviews, ohoberlin is being repurposed to serve as a public journal for my Spring 2021 internship toward my Public Administration degree at Lorain County Community College. Thanks to the Oberlin Recreation Department (for which I also sit on the city’s commission), I am interning with the purpose of finding out the social and recreational needs of seniors in the city for their purpose of identifying how the city might engage those needs.
This time, I interviewed my father who is the fourth generation of Comings to live in Oberlin. We talk about things ranging from the programs he has given to his remembrance of “Scottie, the barber” who used to take newspapers to the hospital each week.
There are more to come.
Starting this week I am an intern with the Oberlin Recreation Department for the equivalent of one day each week as I work toward my associate’s degree in Public Administration. I intend a few brief podcasts on the way.
Editor’s note: This corrects the inadvertent omission by technical difficulty of two minutes of my interview with Jason.
I’ve known about Jason Williams since before his time on the Oberlin City School board of education. To be transparent about it, my younger child attended one of the early editions of his tech camp, “GET with the PROGRAM.”
People who launch their own businesses fascinated me with their perseverance, and Jason was no exception. Growing up in Lorain, he attended Oberlin College and lived for a time in Japan where he marketed himself as a musician while teaching business English.
We could have used more than an hour, but I figure this way we can pick up on a conversation the next time we bump into each other.
Thanks for listening.