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Community Connections program to benefit state’s growing senior population

The face of North Carolina is growing increasingly older. 
By 2030, aging and adult services officials project that 75 of the state’s counties will have more residents age 60 and older than age 17 and younger. Many of these seniors will live in UNC’s backyard — Orange County — where the older adult population is expected to top out at 17 percent over the next 22 years.
Such projected growth is beginning to spur dialog about how these older residents as well as  adults with disabilities, will be cared for and what long-term medical and support services will be needed to help them remain healthy and when possible, independent. 
More than 75 service providers, nonprofit representatives, housing officials, social workers, educators and others helped kick off these conversations Nov. 13-14, during community meetings at the Central Orange Senior Center. The meetings were hosted by Community Connections, a Duke Endowment-funded initiative that aims to expand support services for seniors and adults with disabilities in Orange and Chatham counties.
The Carol Woods Retirement Community applied for the grant and is working with local partners, including the Center for Aging Research and Educational Services (CARES) — part of the UNC School of Social Work’s Jordan Institute for Families — to complete the three-year project.
Although programs and organizations around the state already provide healthcare and support services to the elderly and adults with disabilities, they do not always work well together. Heather Altman, a Carol Woods employee and the Community Connections project director, thinks the initiative can help strengthen collaboration between these public and private agencies.
“We’re interested in building virtual bridges and making connections between all of these groups,” she said.
Community Connections partners also hope that the project work will produce a state model that helps close the gap between services and those in need, said Gary Nelson, a UNC School of Social Work professor and CARES director.
Identifying a set of desired outcomes, including needed resources, tops the initial agenda. During the two-day meetings in Orange County, participants discussed community programs and networks that individuals and their families currently rely on such as nursing homes, assisted living facilities and personal caregivers.
Conversations also centered on service gaps and issues affecting the elderly, such as emergency room use for medical visits, lack of social supports and mental distress concerns. According to a 2008 UNC report, “Understanding, Coordinating and Improving Health Care Provision to North Carolina’s Elderly,” 65 percent of patients, age 75 and older, visited emergency departments, a third of whom returned multiple times and many within one month.
In a 2006 state “Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System” report, it was estimated that between 7.9 percent and 9.4 percent of North Carolina residents, age 50 and older, “rarely or never receive the social support they need.” It was also estimated that between 9.8 percent and 14.4 percent of people, age 50 and older, experienced “frequent mental distress in the last 30 days.”
The Community Connections project will focus on improving the “transition” periods for seniors and adults with disabilities. Such efforts could ensure that if, for example, an elderly resident is discharged from the hospital and returning home, proper medical and social support plans are in place to further care for that patient’s needs.  
Though much work remains, Nelson is optimistic that Community Connections will help local agencies find greater ways to work together and opportunities to actively speak out on behalf of some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.
“What has been missing in North Carolina for quite a while is a voice for a community of adults with disabilities and for older adults,” Nelson said. “To make things happen, the community has to pull together.”
By Susan White