AMY J. BARRY, Special to the Day
Most elderly Americans want to stay put, despite the availability of top-notch retirement communities and assisted living facilities that are a far cry from the nursing home of a generation ago.
According to recent AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) research, nearly 90 percent of people age 45 and older want to remain in their homes and communities for as long as possible.
But providing all the services necessary for a booming demographic to stay safely at home is easier said than done. The U.S. consensus projects the number of people 65 and older will more than double to 88.5 million by 2050 and comprise 20 percent of the total population.
Here in Connecticut, towns and cities are facing this challenge by "building" their own villages-essentially retirement communities without walls, based on Beacon Hill Village, created in Boston in 2001. These non-profit membership organizations run by and for residents, provide (non-medical) support and services to seniors for an annual fee.
OSCA (Our Shoreline Community Association), established in 2009, serves Noank, Mystic, Stonington and Groton. It was one of the earliest "villages" in Connecticut; one of just 10 statewide that are operating or in development.
OSCA is self-supporting by charging an annual fee of $365 ($1 a day) for an individual or couple. It has a board of directors and one part-time paid staff member, Stephanie Panagos, who organizes activities and helps seniors access services, including transportation if they're no longer driving. To keep costs down, members help coordinate social activities and provide volunteer services.
Panagos points out that social and cultural activities are integral to OSCA. These include play-reading groups, theater and restaurant outings; potluck suppers; and trips to museums, festivals and other events. A book group is in the planning stages.
There is also a Living Well information series that's offered topics such as how to make your house more comfortable and safe; avoiding scams and Internet safety; and exercising in the comfort of your own home.
OSCA's members range widely in age. At 64, Tim Bates of Noank is at the younger end of the spectrum. A founding board member, about five years ago, Bates, a land use attorney, began reading about Beacon Hill Village and other planned communities and says, "I started looking around Noank, and in addition to a lot of old houses, I realized we have a lot of old residents-and no one is getting any younger."
As a deacon of the Noank Baptist Church, Bates got the church's help "in getting the ball rolling to help seniors stay in their homes for as long as they're comfortable doing so." He then reached out to other churches, including St. Patrick's in Mystic, which came onboard. The churches raised donations for OSCA until it acquired its own non-profit status.
"I principally went into this to help others, because I thought it was a good thing," Bates says. "As I've gotten deeper into it, I thought it was a good thing to have it there for me, which is funny, because I don't usually think about getting older. But it's good to get involved earlier on in your 60s or early 70s so it's there when and if you need it."
"It's sort of an insurance policy," agrees Panagos. "People can be resistant that they're getting older and will need help. When people find us, it's usually after they realize they can't get around. All of a sudden they had to stop driving. It's such a relief that someone can get them to a doctor appointment or the grocery store."
AGING TO PERFECTION
Niel Spillaine has been an OSCA member for several years and is one of the newest board members and a volunteer driver. At 88 years young, Spillaine retired from Electric Boat in 1985 and has lived in Mystic since the early 1960s, where, for decades, he's volunteered at the Mystic Seaport Museum.
"So far people tell me my faculties are in amazingly good shape for my age," Spillaine says.
Before he retired, Spillaine and his wife, who died almost two years ago, looked into retirement communities, and talked about moving to Florida.
"We didn't want to live with the same people, the same age, doing the same thing day after day," he says. "I thoroughly enjoy living in a mixed neighborhood with one person across the street 30 years younger than me, and a young schoolteacher down the street.
"The events are interesting. It kind of drives you out of the house," he adds, "and I see it being very helpful for the people I transport-it's another opportunity to have a (conversation)."
Spillaine is aware that his positive attitude helps keep his mind and body healthy-and that being able to remain in his home is a blessing.
"I wasn't awed by the future. I was never afraid of it," he says. "I was always a planning type. People say, 'What am I going to do when I'm retired?' I'd say, there are a million things out there to do. To me, the world is a wonderful place.
"I heckle some of my friends and tell them you've got to keep doing interesting things or your brain turns to mush.
"I just keep my fingers crossed it goes on for a while," he says, referring to his life. "I'm having too much fun."
Juanita Haines is one of the people Spillaine drives to appointments. She's 90 and recently lost her driver's license.
"You can only depend on friends every once and awhile," she says. "I began calling (OSCA) for doctor's appointments last spring. They're a wonderful organization, very helpful."
Haines says OSCA is making it easier for her stay in her home and independent. Born in New London, she has strong roots in the local community.
"I've lived by myself in the same little house in Noank for 25 years. My husband died 27 years ago," she says.
"I went to breakfast (with other OSCA members) a couple weeks ago-that was fun. It gets you out for most of the morning. Without it I would be completely stuck here. Having them to call on is a godsend."
Panagos and Bates both stress that more growth-from the current 71 to at least 100 members-along with donations, will allow OSCA to be fully sustainable and a stable fixture in the community.
"It's been so rewarding to see this all fall into place," Bates says. "We're close, but not quite there yet."