Last week the Vermont Departments of Health and Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living (DAIL) released a comprehensive document, produced by a wide range of state officials, nonprofit organization employees, and volunteers. It’s titled Age Strong VT: Our Road Map for an Age Friendly State. (Read it at www.healthyvermont.gov/agestrongvt).
As the two Commissioners describe it, the report “touches on all aspects of aging well for all Vermonters – a secure retirement, health and wellness, social connection, affordable housing, flexible transportation, intergenerational community design, a coordinated system of services, family care partner support, and balancing self-determination with safety and protection. It seeks to expand and strengthen partnerships across government, business, education, and communities, all while reframing aging and making Vermont livable for all.”
Aging is a high priority concern in Vermont, which ranks #4 in the country for percent of population over sixty (20.6%). “Since 2000, the number of Vermonters 60 years and older has increased by 80% while the number of Vermonters under 20 years old has decreased by 17%. Vermont is undergoing a shift to a shrinking youth population with a growing older adult population.”
Why is that? The report, as exhaustive as it is about the services needed to benefit the elderly, doesn’t address that question, but a major reason has to be that Vermont is a high priced state to live in, and our economy is not vigorous enough to keep young Vermonters here.
The report says that “to fully address the challenges and realize the opportunities ahead, it is critical that all sectors of society, government, and business work together to provide an environment where all Vermonters can live, work, recreate and age well…. [We need to] create social hubs at schools, libraries, churches and other locations to increase social connection and engagement.”
Well, yes, but bear in mind that the document was written mostly by people employed by the government to provide services. A few of its many recommendations are directed at removing governmentally-created barriers affecting seniors, including reducing taxation of social security benefits and zoning restrictions prohibiting Accessory Housing Units. The great bulk of the recommendations feature action verbs like increase, support, expand and invest. That is, the recommendations require more service providers providing and coordinating more services at more taxpayer expense.
Not surprisingly, the report provides no price tag on a large menu of expanded services. Unless magical money appears from somewhere, taxpayers must pay for most of the programs, which is a significant reason why young people are leaving for more promising places.
The report proposes to “support and strengthen Vermont’s network of viable senior centers, adult day centers and other local community institutions such as libraries and churches with quality and equitable programming for older Vermonters.” The bureaucratic mentality sees it as their duty to supervise and if need be exercise control over private institutions, lest some of those centers, libraries and churches flunk the state’s quality and equity tests.
The report is enthusiastic about waging a “fight for justice” to combat “ageism”, which its authors seem to see as creating another victim class akin to sexism and racism.
It would be a good thing for the report authors, in the final version, to offer some examples of successful independent sector initiatives both here and elsewhere. One that I have always applauded operates in the country with the world’s largest percentage-wise senior population, Japan (29% of population over 65). It’s called roojinkai, and I discovered it in my friend George Liebmann’s book Little Government, Not Big (2000). The name translates to “old age clubs”, and they exist to improve senior living and fend off social isolation.
Reports Liebmann, “The club members look after and help one another. They also work with the mensei-lin, a corps of volunteers dedicated to regularly calling on seniors who require assistance. The clubs also provide relief for people caring for aging parents. About 60 percent of the funds for these clubs come from voluntary dues, an additional 20 percent coming from neighborhood associations and another 20 percent from the state.”
Age Strong VT focuses our attention on a wide range of things that we – the government and the independent sector - can do to enrich the lives of our growing percentage of seniors. The remaining questions are, how can this be done most efficiently, how can the state support local voluntary efforts without inflicting burdensome government control, and of course, how will our tax base be enlarged to enable us to pay for it.
John McClaughry writes for the Ethan Allen Institute.