Speaking out: Alaska seniors plan for big changes

Part two in a three-part series

“No person should be forgotten.” – Anna Frank, Commissioner, Alaska Commission on Aging

This is part two of a three-part report on the recently-released “Alaska State Plan for Senior Services FY2020 –2023.” The document is critically important for seniors in Alaska because it uniquely focuses on issues we care deeply about such as health, housing, financial security, personal safety, and quality of life. This month we focus on what elders and other seniors from around the state said in their discussions for the survey.

“Seniors are our truth seekers; our teachers; our mentors. Seniors provide the bedrock for each community in our state. They embrace the past and encourage the future. They remind us that if we don’t embrace our errors, we are doomed to repeat them.” -- Mary Shields, Commissioner, Alaska Commission on Aging.

The Alaska Commission on Aging (ACoA) held seven elder-senior listening sessions in towns and villages across the state, and a separate statewide session for people aging with intellectual and developmental disabilities. All these sessions were held in 2017 and 2018. A total of 152 seniors took part in these sessions, which focused on aging in place, access to health care, community-based long-term support services, safety and protection, housing, financial security, and healthy aging.

On the positive side there was a general consensus across all listening sessions that indicated some important services were working well.

“Senior centers are named in most communities as working well. Certain senior services such as community-based services and others along the continuum were mentioned in most sessions. Transportation services in several communities appear to be working well, as well as access to health care in communities outside of the railbelt,” noted the survey report.

On the other hand, there was broad agreement by seniors in the listening sessions that a list of important areas need improvement. These included “Limited and accessible medical care/mental health care; affordable and accessible housing opportunities to age-in-place, including independent senior housing and assisted living facilities; transportation services including para-transit; and in a few communities the need to address isolation and a lack of age-appropriate activities.”

“I think there should be housing for seniors of my age group that is affordable. All I have found in Anchorage and Mat-Su were $3,000 a month, which I could not afford. I either make too much income or do not have enough. ”– Senior Survey 2018 Respondent

In 2018 the Alaska Commission on Aging received 3,130 responses to a survey of Alaskans age 55 years and older. The top three concerns by seniors that emerged from this study included 1) access to health care, 2) financial security and 3) affordable/accessible housing.

In addition to surveys and listening groups, the Alaska Commission on aging solicited and received letters and comments from the general public in May of 2019. The biggest single topic of concern among these respondents was the report’s designation of the Mat-Su Valley as an “urban” area instead of a “rural” area. While the technical issues relating to this designation are somewhat complex, the consequence would be less funding for senior services in the Mat-Su Valley.

Some of the comments around this issue were emotionally charged, such as this one from an unidentified respondent: “I find your usage of the term urban in regard to the senior population in the entire Matsu valley to be darkly comedic. I would urge you to not count people, many of whom have no water, sewage and in some cases electricity, as urban.

As a senior struggling for existence due to no fault of my own, I find your attempt to cut budgeting to essential senior services to be morally reprehensible. (Remainder of comment removed [by report authors] for inappropriate content).”

Finally, what is to be done? Part three of this series will focus on possible solutions to the seemingly intractable socioeconomic problems experienced by seniors across the state. At least part of the solution, perhaps a big part of the solution, is political:

“Alaska seniors face challenges unlike other times in our recent past. Alaska has the fastest growing senior population in the country. Alaska has been a leader in developing home and community-based services to keep seniors living as independently as possible. Unfortunately, the funding for these programs have not kept up with the population growth and providers are struggling to meet the needs of Alaska’s seniors. It is important that seniors communicate their needs to the policymakers and administration.” – Rachel Greenberg, Commissioner, Alaska Commission on Aging.

Author Bio

Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.

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