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Budget cuts jeopardize efforts to fill seniors' needs


Senior citizens wait to receive vouchers for produce at the Sylvania Senior Center.

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Sitting on a bench in Sylvania one recent morning, Ellen Pethe enjoyed a mercifully cool breeze while she waited for her Tai Chi group to begin.

“It's amazing the things they offer here,” she said, referring to physical fitness options offered inside the brown brick building behind her. “There's no reason just to sit at home.”

This place that soon will be adding a weight area, a stair stepper, and possibly a fitness instructor is not some new health club. This is the Sylvania Senior Center.

And Mrs. Pethe, at 75 years old, represents just one of the thousands of seniors the Area Office on Aging of Northwestern Ohio serves in what is becoming an increasingly diverse 60-plus population.

A recent report by the office assigns numbers to what those in the business have suspected for years: The area's seniors are healthier, older, and looking to the system for more than bingo and pinochle.

“You can't make sweeping generalizations about seniors anymore,” Area Office Executive Director Billie Johnson said.

The three-year strategic plan is a kind of “blueprint for the office,” where the goal is “to help people stay in their homes for as long as they want and as long as they're able to do it,” said Mike Kahle, author of the plan.

“For different people, that means different things,” he said. “The population that we serve that is closer to 60 is far different than those seniors in their 80s or 90s.”

The report was the result of four public hearings in February and April. In all, 68 people attended, including 27 residents who were 60 or older. The groups identified six “gaps” in the region's services to seniors, a demographic that has swelled steadily in the office's 10-county area.

It also points out that the area's senior population continues to swell, despite at least one projection by the Ohio Department of Planning in 1997 that the population would decline from 157,840 residents who were 60 or older in 1990 to 152,120 seniors by 2000, Mr. Kahle said.

Instead, the population climbed to 159,566 residents in that age bracket, according to the U.S. Census.

Lucas County felt the squeeze as its 60-plus seniors increased by more than 5 percent, to 76,180 seniors, Mr. Kahle said.

More critically - at least for those in the business of providing services for the elderly - is that an increasing number of seniors are living into their 80s and beyond. Not surprisingly, they are the heaviest users of the system.

In Lucas County, an estimated 29,060 seniors are 75 or older now; 7,307 are 85 years or older.

The numbers are even more startling looking at them long-term. In 1980, residents 85 years and older made up less than 10 percent of the senior population in the 10 counties; in 2000, they represented more than 15 percent.

That means folk such as Ms. Pethe turn to senior services for recreation and a social outing, while others rely on the system for life-prolonging critical medical services.

In the western part of the region, for example, several clients rely on the Paulding County Senior Center to transport them to the closest dialysis treatment center in New Haven, Ind.

It's a nine-hour ordeal, three times weekly. Another client must travel to Toledo - a 176-mile drive - each month for follow-up exams for orthopedic surgery, said coordinator of the center, Marsha Yeutter.

“These things aren't recreational or a luxury. They're necessary,” she said.

In fact, transportation is the first of six service gaps identified by the report. “We could not begin to pay for all the transportation that is needed,” Mr. Kahle said. “That's why a lot of providers have to rely on volunteers.”

The report identifies “community-based care” as a second service need. That's the assistance given to residents caring for their elderly loved ones through programs which try to keep seniors at home rather than sending them to a nursing home. One such program is PASSPORT, which can provide at-home care for the elderly so loved ones get a respite to pursue their own lives.

On the average, annual PASSPORT care costs $11,000 per client compared to average nursing-home care that costs $52,000, said Steve Proctor, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Aging.

“Families provide an overwhelming amount of care,” he said. “It's important to keep the families energized and healthy to care for these seniors.”

The other four service needs identified in the report are prescription-drug assistance, affordable housing, supplementary nutrition services, and information technology for the staff working in senior services.

But the need to diversify and fill in the service gaps are occurring at a time of funding uncertainty at the state and local levels, according to the report.

For certain, nearly $5 million has been sliced off last year's $318 million budget for the state's aging department, and those cuts must be passed to the state's 12 Area Offices on Aging, Mr. Proctor said. That means state services for things such as home-delivered meals and transportation might be affected by budget trimming that could range from 9 percent to 15 percent. “They are important services, but something has to be cut,” he said.

Even money for services for Alzheimer's clients - at one time believed to be fairly safe from the budgetary knife - lost a 1.5 percent slice this year.

That happens despite the fact that one in 10 persons 65 to 74 years old suffer from Alzheimer's, and more than half of those 85 and older suffer from the disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association of Northwest Ohio, one of the agencies that gets state funding through the Area Office on Aging.

The office served 3,000 clients in its education services in its fiscal year 2000, compared to 4,500 clients last year, said Director Salli Bollin.

Still, the report contained plenty of good news, too. Services, overall, have expanded. For example, more seniors have more access to fresh fruit and vegetables through nearly $3 million in federal grants that offer vouchers at local farmers' markets.

Moreover, of the 10 counties in the region, eight have passed levies specifically for senior services. Finally, while state dollars have slowed, federal dollars may be on the way to make up for the shortage.

“I think this is an optimistic report,” Ms. Johnson said. “At least our plans are optimistic. How well we'll be able to implement this blueprint will be up to how much our budget gets cut.”

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