“You have enough density of people that you have social connectedness, but you don't have so much density that you're in a really competitive environment for resources,” said Jenny Womack, the founding director of Appalachian State University’s occupational therapy program.
Before assuming her current position, Womack worked as an occupational therapist with older individuals at the Orange County Department on Aging. She was also the associate director of UNC’s Partnerships in Aging Program.
Higher life expectancy in Orange County is tied to the social determinants of health, Womack said. According to the World Health Organization, social determinants of health include income, education level, food insecurity, housing and health care access.
Amanda Holliday, associate professor of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, said rural North Carolina has a low usage rate of federal nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and food delivery programs for older adults.
She added that food deserts, areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food, contribute to the lower life expectancy found in rural North Carolina.
“In rural areas, federal money that is trickling down to help deal with food insecurity is hard to disperse to these in need just because of the rural nature,” Holliday said.
In her work with the OCDOA and PiAP, Womack helped coordinate the development of the Crescent Magnolia project in Hillsborough. This is the first Habitat for Humanity development in North Carolina to provide older adults with homeownership opportunities.
Crescent Magnolia is a development of 24 single-story townhomes designed for adults ages 55 and older. The community was developed to model Martin Luther King Jr.'s idea of a "Beloved Community" — a neighborhood designed to increase access, equality and opportunity.
The OCDOA provides resources for older individuals at county’s senior centers, the Passmore Center in Hillsborough and the Seymour Center in Chapel Hill. It offers a congregate meal program that provides free lunches at its senior centers, services that help with life transitions and health care access, and recreational activities for seniors.
“They are a very progressive group of people in terms of thinking about all the ways they can address the needs, wants and desires of people who are a certain age living in Orange County,” Womack said.
Though Orange County has infrastructure that provides food access, transportation and housing needs for the aging population, Womack said there is work to be done in both the state and county to help marginalized communities age.
“We have a very privileged group of people in Orange County, in some way," Womack said. "And then there are those folks who are feeling like they are more at the margins, and how are they going to feel integrated into the services and resources that we can provide?”
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Walker Livingston is a 2023-24 assistant city & state editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as summer city & state editor. Walker is a sophomore pursuing a double major in journalism and media and American studies, with a minor in data science.