Aging in Place in Your Rhode Island Community

Published in RINewsToday on May 2, 2022

As the graying of the nation’s population continues, older persons are choosing to live out their remaining years remaining in their communities in their homes, whenever possible. A new just-released study of adults age 50 and older from the AP-NORC Center for Public Research and the SCAN Foundation, finds a majority of older persons would like to age in place and are confident they can access needed services that will allow them to stay at home in their community for as long as possible.  

Gathering Thoughts About Aging in Place

According to this new national study released last week, two-thirds of the respondents think their communities meet their needs for accessing services like health care, grocery stores and social opportunities. The researchers found that all types of health care services are widely perceived as easy to access in their communities, and most feel that local health care understand their needs (79%) and take their concerns seriously (79%).

But, a closer examination of the small proportion of older Americans (Blacks and Hispanics) who feel less prepared and less supported in their community raises concerns about equity in access to the resources necessary to age in place.

However, the study reported that a few respondents say they had a hard time accessing needed services because of communication obstacles like a language barrier (11%), cultural barrier (8%) or age gap (8%); issues with affordability (15%); or issues of respect for their religious (4%) or cultural (3%) background. 

Those in urban areas—and suburban areas especially—describe their communities as having more supports for aging in place than those in rural areas. Older adults in suburban areas see their communities as doing the best job with meeting needs for healthy food, internet access, and the kinds of foods they want to eat. Suburban areas are also seen as better than rural areas in particular at meeting needs for health care and social activities. Older rural Americans are less likely than those living elsewhere to use a range of services simply because they aren’t available in their area. They are less likely to feel that community services are easy to get and designed for people their age than those in urban or suburban communities as well. And they are less likely to think a variety of health care services would be easy for them to access.

Income disparities are also associated with access to critical aging services. Those with incomes of $50,000 and below are less likely than those earning more to have access to services that are in their language (73% vs. 82%), close by or easy to get to (58% vs. 65%), respectful of their religious beliefs (57% vs. 65%), or designed for people their age (53% vs. 63%). When it comes to medical services, they are also less likely to have easy access to dental care, physical therapy, pharmacies, nursing homes, and urgent care than those earning more.

Additionally, those age 65 and older generally feel more prepared and report better access to important community services than those ages 50-64.

Aging in Place in the Ocean State 

For older adults aging in place, in their own homes, is by far the preferred model, says Mary Lou Moran, Director, Pawtucket Division of Senior Services at the Leon Mathieu Senior Center. “In fact, the theme of this year’s federal observance of Older Americans Month “Age My Way” focuses specifically on this very topic. The coordination, accessibility, and connection to services and programs is critical to the successful delivery of services and is where much work needs to be done,” she says. 

Moran says that senior centers located in communities throughout the state deliver needed information and assistance to older adults on accessing the needed  services to age in place.  Social isolation, access to transportation, food and housing insecurity, economic stability, and connectivity to services, are obstacles to enabling a person to stay in the community in their homes, adds Moran.

Over the years, Rhode Island’s inadequate Medicaid rates have become major obstacles to allowing a person to stay at home. However, recent state legislation, H 7616, to recreate a Department of Healthy Aging, spearheaded by Reps Carson, Ruggiero, McLaughlin, Contvriend, Speakman, Ajello and Potter, addresses some of the challenges that service providers are facing when trying to assist individuals to age in place. Moran adds, as the number of older adults continues to grow exponentially, the time has come to fully put the needs of our elders in the fore front to enable them to age with choice, dignity and respect.

According to Maureen Maigret, policy consultant and Chair of the Aging in Community Subcommittee of the Long-Term Care Coordinating Council, “Rhode Island is fortunate to have a number of government-funded programs that help older adults to age in place.” These programs include Meals on Wheels home-delivered meals program; Medicaid home and community services including home care, adult day services; assisted living and self-directed programs; Caregiver respite and support services; Home Modification grants to help make homes accessible; and elder transportation assistance for those age 60+ for medical trips, to get to adult day.  She also mentioned the Office of Healthy Aging’s Home Cost Share program for persons age 65+ and persons underage 65 with dementia who are not Medicaid eligible with income up to 250% of the federal poverty level and the wonderful programs offered at the state’s senior centers.

However, Maigret says that for some of these services such as home care there may be wait lists due to worker shortages. (People can find out about these programs or to find out what benefits they may be entitled to by calling the POINT at 401-462-4444).

There are also private services available for almost any service needed to help people age in place if they have the financial means to pay for them,” says Maigret.  

The National Village to Village Movement Comes to Rhode Island

While some of these volunteer programs in RI may offer some type of services such as transportation, a relatively new initiative has come to Rhode Island. “The Village Common of Rhode Island (TVC) provides a variety of supports through the efforts of almost 200 trained and vetted volunteers,” says Maigret. 

Maigret says that the goal of TVC is to help older persons to stay in their own homes and connected and engaged with their community. “This “neighbor helping neighbor” model started 20 years ago in Beacon Hill Boston and now there are 300 nonprofit “villages” operating across the country. TVC supports include transportation, running errands, home visits and telephone assurance, minor home repairs and light yard work, assistance with technology, and a virtual caregiver support program. A robust weekly calendar offers virtual events, and a monthly newsletter keeps members and guests informed. All this is done with a lean 1.5 person staff, a working board of directors and almost 200 volunteers,” she notes. 

“I had heard about the “village” model some years back and supported efforts to start a “village” in Rhode Island, she says. “It amazes me that a small band of committed volunteers were able to put all the pieces in place to operationalize a “village” and to see what has been accomplished. There are now active “villages” in Providence, Barrington, Edgewood/Cranston and Westerly with almost 300 members and more “villages” are under development. One of the priority goals of the Board is to reach out to underserved neighborhoods in our urban and rural areas to listen to people and find out what is important to them and what type of “village” program might work in their area,” she says. 

“We know that transportation is a huge issue for folks living in our rural areas and that is a huge concern. And, based on findings of the 2021 RI Life Index: Older Adults in Rhode Island(from RI Blue Cross Blue Shield//Brown University School of Public Health), we know that older persons of color living in our core cities have lower perceptions of community life, access to healthcare and experience lower food security and access to technology,” adds Maigret.  

“Research on the fairly new “village” programs shows promise in fostering feelings of being connected to others and suggest older women living alone with some disability most likely to experience improved health, mobility and quality of life (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28509628/.),” says Maigret, noting that this is an important finding as Rhode Island has such a high portion of older adults living alone.

TVC President Anne Connor (74) says she has been a member and volunteer since 2015. “That we are volunteer supported is noteworthy and having an Executive Director, Caroline Gangji, (formerly acting Executive Director at Age Friendly RI), improves our ability to serve our members”, says the retired librarian and paralegal.

As TVC founder Cy O’Neil once said, ” …you don’t create a fire house when the house is burning.”  TVC is more than services – it is the relationships we build that are key to our success, says Connor.  

For details about The Village Common Rhode Island, go to https://www.villagecommonri.org/.

For specifics programs and services offered by the Rhode Island Office of Healthy, go to  https://oha.ri.gov/.  

Bill would (re)create a RI Department of Healthy Aging

Published on March 21, 2022 in RINewsToday

There are new efforts on Smith Hill to transform the state’s Office of Healthy Aging (OHA) into a department making it far more visible and effective as an advocate for the state’s growing senior population.  H. 7616, introduced by Rep. Lauren H. Carson (D-District 75, Newport), would expand the office in the Department of Human Services (DHS) into a full-fledged state department, expand its director’s authority, and appoint local senior centers as hubs for service delivery, with authority to bill Medicaid for transportation services.

The RI Department of Elderly Affairs (DEA) was created by law in 1977 and remained a department until 2011, when the legislature changed it to a division within the Department of Human Services (DHS). In 2019, the department was re-named the Office of Healthy Aging (OHA), shifting narratives and perceptions associated with growing older. At press time, the Office of Healthy Aging remains a division under the Department of Human Services. 

“Rhode Island should invest much more than we do in services that enable people to age in place and safely remain in their communities. Those services are far more cost-efficient overall, and encourage an active, more fulfilling lifestyle for people as they age”, says Carson in a statement announcing the introduction of the bill on March 2, 2022. “Considering that a quarter of our population consists of seniors, and that ratio is growing as the Baby Boomers join them, now is the time,” she adds.

At press time, the bill has been sent to the House Finance Committee, and its cost has not yet been determined and there is no companion measure introduced yet in the Senate.

“Working cooperatively with the senior centers operating around the state, we could make it much easier for people to access the support they need as they age, and really make the quality of life much better for the entire older population of our state,” says Carson expressing the importance of the state’s senior centers.

H. 7616 would authorize the new Department of Healthy Aging to protect and enable seniors to stay healthy and independent by providing meals, health programs, transportation, benefits counseling and more. Under the bill, the department would provide professional development to agencies and programs that provide services to seniors in the state and become a clearing house to help those agencies and businesses assist senior centers, which would serve as hubs for the delivery of services from the state.

In particular, H 7616 directs the new department to manage and develop a multi-tiered transportation system that works with the Department of Human Services, the Department of Transportation, senior centers and with all existing modes of public transportation to develop transportation plans that suit the elderly population of each municipality. The director would be enabled to authorize senior centers to bill Medicaid for transportation they provide.

The legislation also seeks to have the new department develop and submit to the General Assembly a funding formula to meet the requirements the new law sets forth, including input from seniors and the caregivers and allocating funding to each municipality based on its senior population, with restrictions that the funding be used only for senior programs.

Carson explains that this bill is intended to start important dialogue among state lawmakers, state officials and aging organizations about appropriately providing for Rhode Island’s aging population.

 “Whether or not we pass this bill this year, we have to address the needs of our growing older population. Leaving those needs unmet has a much greater price tag than decent locally administered basic programs would. Our whole state would be better served by investments that keep seniors safe with support in their community,” Carson said.

OHA and Aging Advocates Give Their Two Cents

Nicole Arias, a spokeswoman for OHA, says “we look forward to any future discussions and collaborations with community members, partners, and legislators.” When asked if the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on Aging, charged with advising the governor on aging policies and problems impacting older Rhode Islanders, Chair James Nyberg stated the commission also plans to review and discuss the bill at an upcoming meeting. 

“Our office looks forward to participating in dialogue that empowers and supports our aging residents and championing essential quality of life items such as healthy housing and reliable transportation. While our office is still unpacking H 7616, we appreciate Rep. Carson and the bill’s cosponsors for advocating on behalf of our senior residents,” says Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, who over sees the state’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council (LTCCC). The group works to preserve senior’s quality of life in all settings and coordinates state policy concerning all sectors of long-term care for seniors.

Bernard J. Beaudreau, Executive Director of the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island, says his group strongly supports any and all efforts that increase the state’s programs and services to address the growing needs of our aging population, especially those with low and moderate incomes.  The state-wide coalition calls for the reinstatement of OHA to a full department, but not without the commensurate expansion of funding and services that are needed for this important state government function.   

“When the Department of Elderly Affairs was reorganized to be a division of the Department of Human Services, we were concerned that it signified a diminishing of the importance of senior needs in the state budget.  While from a management perspective, the division within the larger Department of Human Services could streamline the delivery of services, there would still be the need to increase staffing and programs to meet the growing needs,” says Beaudreau. This did not happen in the ensuing years.

“Restoring the OHA to a department status will strengthen its position at the budget table and elevate the importance of programs supporting older residents of our state. We hope that will make a difference,” says Beaudreau.

“The legislation proposed by Rep. Carson elevates the conversation about the importance of age-friendly policies that enable Rhode Islanders to choose how we live as we age,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Catherine Taylor. “AARP Rhode Island looks forward to being part of this conversation and continuing to advocate fiercely at both the state and local levels for enhanced home and community-based supportive services, accessible and affordable housing and transportation options, and full inclusion of people of all ages and abilities in community life,” she said. 

According to Maureen Maigret, policy consultant and chair of the Aging in Community Sub-committee of Rhode Island’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council, H 7616 is a very significant bill that will help to stimulate a long due discussion as to how the state should fund senior programs and services in light of the state’s growing age 65 and older population. This age group is projected to represent at least one in five of  the state’s residents by 2040.

Maigret recalls that the state’s Department of Elderly Affairs was created by law in 1977 and remained a cabinet level department until 2011 when the Rhode Island General Assembly changed it to a division within the Department of Human Services as part of the enacted budget bill.  Eight years later, lawmakers would change the agency’s name from the division of elderly affairss the OHA. The enacted law placed OHA in the Department of Human Services for administrative purposes and called for the OHA Director to be appointed by and to report to the Governor with advice and consent of the Senate.

When Maigret left her position of Director of Elderly Affairs (serving from 1991 to 1994), its budget for FY1995 was $13.9 million (state funds) and it had at least 60 full-time employees. The state’s  FY2022  budget for OHA stands at $12 million (state funds) with 31 authorized employees, she said.

Maigret warns that the existing OHA is under-resourced both in state funding and human resources. She calculates that Rode Island spends about fifty dollars per older person (age 65 and older) when taking into account state funding for senior services and its population age 65 and over.

“We could do so much more to support our older adults by addressing service gaps especially for those not poor enough to meet our strict Medicaid income eligibility rules which require older adults to have income less than $13,600 and assets less than $4,000 single and $6,000 for a couple,” Maigret says. Funding for local senior centers and programs in Rhode Island municipalities should be calculated by at least $10 per person aged 65. 

Maigret urges state lawmakers to support local transit assistance efforts, to increase funding for caregiver support programs, and to expand information services to provide assistance to seniors to assist them to find subsidized home maintenance and chore service programs.  Better funding should be allocated to support volunteer programs that provide companionship and other services to reduce social isolation,“ she says.

“I suggest reverting the OHA to a full department as called for in H 7616 only if there is a concomitant increase funding and resources, says Maigret, noting that one source of funding could be available from  the Perry/Sullivan law (that the Governor’s budget proposes to defer for FY2023.),  These state funds could be used to allow OHA to truly provide the needed supports and services to older adults to live full and healthy lives as intended in the department’s creation,” she says.

“Older adults suffered greatly during the COVID pandemic – 90% of the deaths were individuals 60 and over, claims Vin Marzullo, a well-known aging advocate who served as a federal civil rights and and national service administrator. “We must provide greater attention and care for this vulnerable population,” he says. 

“Since the proposed legislation to elevate the OHA to department status was initiated by the Rhode Island House, I would hope that former House legislator, Marie Cimini, would welcome and embrace this legislation to become a premiere agency for the Governor, quips the West Warwick resident. He notes that Cimini was recently nominated by Gov. Dan McKee for the position of Director of the state’s Office of Healthy Aging.  This nomination requires Senate confirmation.

The other cosponsors of the H 7616 include Rep. Deborah Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Middletown), Rep. James N. McLaughlin (D-Dist. 57, Cumberland, Central Falls), Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown), Rep. June S. Speakman (D-Dist. 68, Warren, Bristol), Rep. Edith H. Ajello (D-Dist. 1, Providence) and Rep. Brandon Potter (D-Dist. 16, Cranston).

Hopefully the upper chamber will see the wisdom in considering a companion measure to  H. 7616.  Let the debate begin. 

For more details about OHA, go to https://oha.ri.gov/

Tele-Town Hall Gets the Word Out About COVID-19

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 3, 2020

This week alone, AARP in some 30 states conducted tele-town halls and 123 state calls have taken place since the pandemic surfaced. AARP Rhode Island, representing 132,000 members age 50 and over, was among the very first states to address the pandemic in a tele-town hall over two weeks ago.

At the AARP Tele-Town Hall, held Wednesday, April 22, during the 56-minute live event, state officials came to answer questions about how to cope with the devastating COVID-19 pandemic and how seniors can protect their health and stay safe. AARP Rhode Island’s John Martin, Communication Director, served as host and the panel of experts featured Office of Healthy Aging (OHA) Director Rosamaria Amoros Jones and Rhode Island Department of Health Medical Director Jim McDonald.

“We had 3,050 participants and, at one time, 974 people were on at the same time,” says Martin, who hosted the call. “We took 18 live calls in 55 minutes and, unfortunately had close to 20 people waiting to speak when time expired,” he adds, noting that it was AARP Rhode Island’s largest tele-town hall audience ever.

According to Martin, “Our in-call interactive poll revealed that nearly three quarters of those who cast votes were most interested in local resources and information on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, About a quarter said they were looking for help caring for family and loved ones, and information on insurance.”

Adds AARP State Director Kathleen Connell, “We were extraordinary pleased with the response to the tele-town hall,” who said she expects more statewide calls. “Just as important, however, is our virtual engagement with members and especially our volunteers. We are getting used to communicating online because that is where all of our ‘personal’ contact will be taking place, at least in the next few months — and that will include video conferencing, which we are testing now. We are impressed at how eager people 50 and older are ready to master the technology and join in.”

State Officials Talk COVID-19

“We are at a point where we are starting to see the benefits of our collective efforts of [maintaining] physical distancing, states OHA Director Jones. It is flattening the curb where the peak number of people requiring care at a time is reduced and the health care system is not overwhelmed, she says.

“It is really important for us that social or physical distancing as we also refer to it does not equal social isolation,” says Jones, noting that innovative approaches can keep people engaged with each other during this time of physical distancing.

Jones also gave a plug for Project Hello (http://oha.ri.gov/get-involved/volunteering/), a program that matches older adults with someone in the community for regular chats and for mutual support. “We’re in it for the long haul and it is going to take all of us working together neighbors helping neighbors,” she says.

“Effective quarantine and isolation efforts are critical today,” says Jones. “Our focus is on making it as easy and as comfortable as possible right now to stay home as we ready ourselves for the new normal that is on the other side of the pandemic,” she adds.

Jones called for those in quarantine and self-isolation reach out to Shopping Angels (www.facebook.com/shoppingangelsinc/) for assistance in personal shopping.

One caller expressed strong concern about Governor Gina Raimondo’s comment that people over age 60, at greater risk of severe COVID-19 illness, would be required to stay home for a longer period of time before being allowed to return to work or participate in community activities. “There have been no definitive decisions to implement restrictions at this time,” said Jones trying to reassure the caller.

Although there are programs and services detailed on the internet that can assist older Rhode Islanders to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, one caller asked how these could be accessed without a laptop, computer or smart phone. Jones noted that The Point (http://oha.ri.gov/get-help/), operated by United Way Rhode Island and linked through 211 or by dialing (401) 462-4444, could provide information, referrals to needed programs and services.

How would people age 60 and over be protected against age discrimination when the governor is stating that it might take a longer time for these individuals to return to work? asked a caller. “It’s something we are thinking a lot about and a lot more [will] come as we talk about what the new normal is going to look like as we come through the peak of the pandemic, says Jones, stressing that age discrimination would not be tolerated.

Jones called for listeners to visit NextDoor.com, a website that promotes volunteer opportunities (including the delivery of groceries for seniors and those in quarantine), to see how they could help those impacted by COVID-19. For those seeking information about housing, Jones recommended a site, RI Havens, that provides a listing of hotels with affordable room rates for front line workers and for those persons stranded because of the virus and might need a safe place to stay. Details about food delivery options and food assistance programs can be found at the site, RI Delivers, that connects those in quarantine or isolation due to COVID-19 with opportunities to have food delivered by local and big-box grocery stores.

One caller asked Dr. James McDonald, Medical Director at RI Department of Health (DOH), about how a person could improve their immunity to assist them to successfully combat COVID-19. “You can’t always control the virus but you can control yourself,” says McDonald, stressing the importance of eating a healthy diet, regularly exercising and losing weight are actions to take to improving your health.

Making COVID-19 Transparent in Rhode Island’s Nursing Homes

During the Tele-Town Hall, McDonald was asked a question, “Why can’t the Health Department provide a list of long-term care and assisted living facilities that will show the number of patients/residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 and the number of facilities.” Twenty-four hours later this list appeared on the DOH Coronavirus Data Hub. (https://ri-department-of-health-covid-19-data-rihealth.hub.arcgis.com/).

McDonald noted that this particular virus has been so effective in causing the pandemic because it takes so long for a person to show symptoms and that other people who have it sometimes spread the virus before they even have symptoms and they don’t even know they should isolate because they don’t feel ill. It becomes important for a person to wear a mask when going outside to stop the spread of the virus, he says.

MacDonald says that it is highly unlikely to catch COVID-19 by touching grocery bags placed on your porch or through picking up a letter or package. He suggests constantly using hand sanitizer and washing your hands before and after picking up items touched by others.

AARP has created a special web page, http://www.aarp.org/RICOVID for coronavirus information and resources,” says AARP Rhode Island’s Martin added. “There you will find information about our ‘Community Connections’ program, aimed at combating isolation and loneliness, and a direct link to http://www.aarp.org/coronovirus, where all of AARP’s resources can be found.