How aging-friendly is Arlington? Study seeks answers

05/06/2014 11:16 AM

05/11/2014 10:57 PM

With a university, sports and entertainment venues and plenty of restaurants and retail, Arlington clearly has appeal for the younger generation. But whether it has the things that senior citizens need is a much grayer area.

That’s why a committee is trying to answer the question: How aging-friendly is Arlington?

The study by the Aging Texas Well-Arlington Steering Committee is important because census figures show that 12 percent of Arlington’s residents are 60 or older and that that population is expected to reach 19 percent by 2030, said Cynthia Jensen, regional director of United Way-Arlington.

“The aging population is one of the fastest-growing age groups in Arlington, in the U.S. and in many places around the world,” she said.

The committee’s work is being funded with a two-year $50,000 grant from the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, which is overseeing a statewide initiative to make sure Texas is ready for an aging population. Two other grants awarded by the department will fund similar studies in Denton and Beaumont, Jensen said.

Aging-well initiatives are going on across the nation, with New York City, Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C., among the major metro areas taking steps to address the growing population of seniors, Jensen said.

The aging baby-boom generation, combined an the average life expectancy of 79, means that most cities will need to conduct similar assessments, said committee member Jerome Mosman, executive director of Senior Citizen Services of Greater Tarrant County.

The number of baby boomers turning 65 will be 10,000 a day until 2030, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Communities have got to get prepared for this; otherwise it’s going to be a terribly sad situation,” he said.

The 23-member committee, which includes representatives from government, health and human services, education and the faith community, is looking at strengths and weaknesses in six areas: demographics, transportation, recreation and well-being, residential, healthcare and community services.

Arlington has plenty to offer the older generation, such as senior centers, multigenerational entertainment and senior living facilities, but the lack of public transportation is probably the most glaring deficiency, committee members said.

The city’s Handitran service provides transportation aboard minibuses for the elderly and disabled, but seniors said trips have to be booked well in advance and waits for a ride can be long.

“One of the weaknesses for the city of Arlington is the transportation system,” Jensen said. “It’s tricky to get around. Of course we have Handitran, but there are some limitations there as well. It’s kind of piecemeal.”

Committee chairman Bonnie Bowman said that availability of services for seniors is another issue. For example, both of the city’s senior citizen centers are in central-east Arlington.

“Arlington has some very age-friendly things,” she said. “We just don’t have it throughout the city.”

At the Senior Recreation Center on New York Avenue, older residents can participate in a variety of activities such as bingo, crafts and movies. Trips to various destinations such as casinos and Rangers games are offered, and each weekday a hot lunch is provided.

“This is where I get my vegetables,” said Elsie Deering, 84, who said the lunch is her main meal of the day. “I enjoy coming out here. I’m the kind of person who has to be around people.”

Jerry Collins, 90, moved to Arlington five years ago from Amarillo to live with his daughters after suffering a fall. He rides Handitran to the center three times a week.

“It’s somewhere to go,” said Collins. “You get a chance to talk to people. What I find out is most of us have the same problems.”

At the Hugh Smith Recreation Center, which adjoins the senior center, older residents can take classes in strength training and tai chi. Even though some of his students are older than 90 and rely on walkers, tai chi instructor Dan Schoppe, 75, keeps their bodies moving and the banter flowing during the class.

“I love every minute of it,” said Carlene Walker, 77, who has taken tai chi from Schoppe for 16 years. “It has just been a godsend for me.”

Some of the data for the study will come through interviews with seniors conducted by the University of Texas at Arlington School of Social Work, Jensen said. The other part involves completing worksheets in each of the focus areas to assess how Arlington measures up, Bowman said.

The committee plans to finalize its recommendations by the end of the year and present its report to the City Council and other city leaders in early 2015.

One question asked at nearly every committee meeting is how to make sure the recommendations are taken seriously, Bowman said. The proposals must be politically palatable to residents and city leaders and the study will require follow-up to make sure it is implemented, Bowman said.

“We don’t want to be part of another study that sits on the shelf,” she said.

Since the number of seniors is growing so quickly, Arlington leaders, who include a number of senior citizens, are likely to consider their concerns, Mosman said.

“They know how to advocate, march, write petitions and vote for the people who help them,” he said. “The seniors will not allow you to neglect them for very long.”

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