Florida Department of Elder Affairs
America’s growing population of older people is often in the news. Nationwide, an estimated 10,000 Baby Boomers retire every day. And although many have years of good life ahead, there’s no getting around the fact that eventually we all need an increasing level of assistance. Since different generations of families often now live far apart, there is more need for locally provided aid, especially in relatively isolated areas like ours.
Physical isolation is a fact of life in rural America. The percentage of Umatilla and Morrow County residents living alone increased considerably from 1990 to 2010, when the last formal census was conducted. And the percentage of people 65 and older jumped by more than 11 percent in Umatilla County from 2000 to 2010 alone.
As we consider our aging population, especially those who become afflicted with dementia and/or Alzheimer’s, we know some who are fortunate to have a robust and caring group of friends. This undoubtedly helps people remain independent at an age when others might have been forced to move in with family or seek a professional care setting. Neither option is easy. What used to be called “old folks homes” are few and far between, victims of a changing labor market, more stringent regulations and other factors. At the same time, a lot of seniors are understandably reluctant to leave familiar and well-loved settings. Few want institutional care or to inconvenience family members.
Rural places — including much of Eastern Oregon — have to do an ever-better job of creating and supporting informal networks of people to watch out for one another. Faced with astronomical increases in elder-care costs, governments at every level must support such hometown efforts by adding visiting nurses, coordinators, mentors and trainers. Ensuring that most seniors remain safe and content in their own homes will be expensive, but might be only a small fraction of what institutional care could total.
There are strengths and weaknesses to the “Silver Alerts,” which are issued for people who are older than 60, suffering from dementia, and known to be driving. When a vulnerable adult goes missing, local police can choose to alert state authorities. Alerts can then be shared between law enforcement agencies, the media and citizens who have signed up for notifications.
Yet its main tools — illuminated signs on highway overpasses and text messages to cellphones — aren’t adapted to sparsely populated areas. At best, perhaps issuing an alert can inspire more intense on-the-ground efforts near a missing person’s home. Volunteer search and rescue groups might be key in some future local lost-person case. It’s possible to imagine a phone-tree system that would essentially create a posse to fan out and walk every trail and road looking for clues to the missing person.
Planning and prevention
Planning and coordination in the early stages can prevent tragedy later on. Relatives should make sure friends, neighbors and church members know whom to contact in an emergency involving a person whose memory is lapsing. It’s also helpful to have people check in on a consistent, predictable schedule.
ID bracelets and GPS navigation devices for affected people who are still driving can make relocating and identifying them much more likely.
As a society, we must not try to pretend these issues won’t become more common in the years just ahead. Ours is a place with a proud tradition of self-help, but that doesn’t mean we should allow anyone to be forgotten or go without the care they obviously need.