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With Aging Population, Berkshire County Seeks To Make Region Welcoming For All

Jim Levulis

Experts in Berkshire County are focusing on an issue that has drawn national attention: how to prepare for a graying society. A recent forum in North Adams brought attention to a countywide effort to become “age friendly.” About 50 people from a number of aging councils and social agencies attended the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition forum. Bobbi Orsi chairs Pittsfield’s Board of Health and also handles community relations for Home Instead Senior Care. She says the phrase “age friendly” is not restricted to just older adults.

“Some of it is an attitude,” Orsi said. “Its how we view the community we live in and how we make it as good for youth as we do for older adults. If we can do that it will work for everybody else in between. It’s not about just focusing on youth or just focusing on older adults because we tend to do that in silos. It’s bringing everybody into the conversation around how do we make our county, not just our municipality, a better place for everybody.”

In 2010, the number of people 65 and over surpassed the amount of school age children in Berkshire County. Currently 20 percent of the county’s 131,000 people are 65 or older and its projected that will rise to roughly 29 percent by 2030. Right now, the state average is around 14 percent. The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission just wrapped up a young adult survey and is in the midst of a query for people 50 and older. The commission’s public health manager Laura Kittross says it seeks to determine priorities, needs and existing resources for creating an active environment for all.

“It includes people who are still working, raising families, hiking, biking and doing all sorts of things and making sure that those things are available,” Kittross said. “That flexible jobs are available. Jobs that may become part-time as you get older but you’re not quite ready to retire. People at 65 now expect to live another 20 years and they’re not necessarily ready to retire and just sit in their backyard for 20 years.”

So far, more than 2,000 people have completed the survey, which covers health, transportation and living situations. Brian O’Grady of the Williamstown Council on Aging says creating welcoming communities doesn’t have to involve reinventing the wheel.

“For instance, if you build a bike trail, anyone can use it,” O’Grady said. “If you have open space anyone can use it. If have an accessible auditorium with programs anyone can use it. It’s just a question of being inclusive.”

Erica Girgenti of the Adams Council on Aging says terminology also needs to be considered. She explained that an active person over 65 might be discouraged or even offended by the term “elderly.” With a downtown redevelopment to make Adams more walkable and visually appealing nearing completion, she says the county needs to consider marketing itself as a place for all demographics.

“A great place for kids to grow up in and as well for their families to grow old in,” Girgenti said. “So supporting all different age groups. If we continue to market ourselves as age friendly communities we may have that upper leg in bringing those younger families in to help balance the population.”

As the county’s population centers, North Adams and Pittsfield enrolled in the AARP/World Health Organization Network of Age Friendly Communities earlier this year, making the agencies’ resources available to those cities. Boston is the only other Massachusetts municipality in the program. A formal recognition is planned June 1st around the same time the planning commission expects to release the survey results.

Click here for the survey.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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