Community survey work important to senior service success

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.

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