With aging comes a new set of needs specific to senior citizens, such as the necessity for more health care access.
“There used to be doctors that specifically took care of people as they aged, but that’s just really not a ‘sexy’ career anymore,” said Penny Rich, Orange County commissioner. “I take care of my mom, and she’s 86. If I wasn’t taking care of her, I don’t even know how she would get to the doctor and get her prescriptions.”
Rich, among others, is working with the rest of the commissioners and other local government agencies to raise awareness about this issue, as well as to increase resources available to senior citizens.
“We’re busting at the seams at both of our Orange County Senior Centers, and down the road, we have about a $12 million budget for improvement,” she said.
Rich likened this impending jump to the massive student increase seen in the county a few years ago.
She said it is comparable to the growing pains Orange County had over the past 20 years, when there was a sudden increase in kids to take care of and not enough school systems.
“We went ahead over the past 20 years and spent $261 million building schools, and we kind of got caught,” she said. “People kept saying, ‘People are coming to North Carolina,’ and no one believed it.”
Mary Warren, assistant director of Triangle J Area Agency on Aging, said her organization hopes to inspire local governments to include seniors in their plans.
“We’re trying to elevate the need and hopefully inspire some of them to include (the seniors),” she said.
The Triangle J Council of Governments is an organization that aims to help local governments work together.
One of its biggest focuses is on the growing number of seniors and on how local governments can work together to tackle the biggest problems seniors face.
Maria Palmer, Chapel Hill town council member, said the lack of affordable housing in Orange County is one of the greatest issues senior citizens face.
“We need a different housing stock in Chapel Hill for our aging population,” she said. “We’ve just been looking at a concept plan and new development on Estes (Drive) that’s going to target seniors.”
Chatham County Commissioner Diana Hales reflected similar concerns about senior housing.
“We’re not a municipality, but we’re looking at where we could have an impact with a focus on rental housing, and perhaps an incentive to encourage development of lower-income housing and rental housing,” she said.
East West Partners, a developer in Chapel Hill, said it is taking strides to make housing more affordable in Chapel Hill.
“In our new project across from Southern Village, we are providing age-restricted housing for senior citizens,” said Roger Perry, president of East West Partners. “We’ve agreed that a portion of our housing will be affordable after we’ve gotten our approvals from the town.”
The two senior facilities in Orange County, the Robert and Pearl Seymour Center and the Central Orange Senior Center, both have programs and services available to seniors.
These programs include free meals, LGBT senior groups, senior-specific Alcoholics Anonymous programs and various recreational activities.
“I come here six days a week,” Orange County senior Joe Acciarito said. “I get my physical exercise at the ping-pong tables and my mental exercise at the pool tables.”
Volunteer Income Tax Assistance is another volunteer program offered through the senior center.
Project EngAGE also endeavors to support the growing senior population. The project aims to connect seniors with volunteer opportunities in Orange County specific to their interests and talents through a 13-week course.
Rich said officials can’t continue to put off the issue of lagging infrastructure to keep up with elderly population growth.
“I think that myself and the rest of the commissioners are aware that seniors are the fastest growing population in Orange County and the region,” she said.