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Graying population raises red flags

Ashland’s older population is growing, with 46.6 percent of residents over age 50. Federal support for aging is waning, with Social Security and Medicare under scrutiny. More and more elders face poverty when a partner dies or gets ill or injured. Much of what the City Council does impacts elders and it’s not always explicitly addressed.

These trends and issues were on the table at a Monday study session, as the council considered ways to integrate aging questions into all they do, develop a network that accesses all present senior help, work it into strategic planning and perhaps open a revenue stream for it, with an overarching study group or commission.

“How do senior issues inform the spirit of council decision making? We need some kind of philosophy around seniors as they get older in this community,” said Mayor John Stromberg. “We don’t have a dedicated revenue stream for this. We are the government on the ground here and this is a big need and we ought to deliver.”

Councilor Stefani Seffinger said she sees more elders in a frail state with less federal support, less appropriate affordable housing and “some element of ageism” in the community. Keeping seniors in their homes is important (and more affordable than nursing homes) — and, in planning, emphasis should be put on “universal design,” which means single-story homes with elder-friendly access, good for all ages.

Councilor Jackie Bachman, the former Senior Program Ad Hoc Committee chair, said Ashland stands out as having a larger percentage of people over 50 (47 percent) than Oregon (36 percent) or the nation (34 percent). (Medford is at 35 percent.)

“The need is rising and we need to focus on it,” she said. For women over 80 in Ashland, a third live alone because a partner has died, then they lose that pension and start falling below the poverty line, she adds.

“Ashland has this false image that everyone is wealthy and happy and it’s all good, but more and more, people are finding themselves on thin ice,” then it becomes greatly exacerbated by an illness or accident.

Some 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day and, Bachman said, “you think how Social Security and Medicare are going to have to stretch for that.”

Members brought up a range of issues afflicting seniors — from homes up steep hills, lack of parking near homes, lack of handrail in the Japanese Garden — noting the issue is bigger and more complex that the senior program in the Parks and Recreation Department.

Councilor Dennis Slattery said a “30,000-foot view” (as from an airplane) is needed to accomplish the job and get it funded, “informing the council on global issues … a daunting set of things we have to understand.”

Stromberg suggested it be “an overlay on what we do in city government. Dare I say ‘commission?’ It’s not anything against Parks and Rec, but they have their mission and are doing a great job with it, but this is bigger.”

Bachman said, “There are so many resources out there. It’s a matter of knowing what’s out there and connecting and linking them … that sounds like an ad hoc group to me,” involving hospitals, colleges, senior services and a range of experts.

City Attorney Dave Lohman said if it’s less formal — not an official ad hoc committee — then it would be more flexible, wouldn’t have to post meeting notices and could gather more information from the public.

After brainstorming on several fronts, the council asked Bachman and Seffinger to work with community members and city staff to bring back proposals for action in a couple weeks — and addressing the thrust of the initiative, whether it will be under a commission or a series of public meetings or something in between.

Other business

In other business, the council reviewed policy on “civic donations,” such as the streetside flowerpots that were a gift. City Attorney Dave Lohman said the administrative rules on the city website need to be organized in a more accessible form and, “we don’t want to seem ungrateful,” but gifts must be consistent with ordinances, not require any city cost, be removable and not interfere with aesthetics around them.

“It’s a judgment call,” said Lohman, and accepting such gifts the job of the council.

The council also, Lohman said Tuesday, cleaned up “due diligence” issues around structural integrity and lessee matters, clearing the way for closing the deal on the purchase of Briscoe School. The purpose of the building is not yet determined, but the large playground area will be a public park under ownership of the Parks & Recreation Department.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

(May 2: Story updated to clarify statistics about how the number of Ashland residents over 50 compares to state and national percentages.)