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Survey will examine assets, needs of graying generation
A telephone survey of 500 Kent County residents age 65 and older will be launched this month.

By Ted Roelofs, 07/09/2004, The Grand Rapids Press

Right now, life looks good to silver-haired, 82-year-old Garnett Waivio of Grand Rapids."I don't have any complaints about anything," said Waivio, as she waited for the band to start at a Thursday afternoon dance at the West Side complex in Grand Rapids. By her side was her friend, Russ Steele, 82, who drove from Zeeland to join her on the dance floor.

"I roll with the flow. I figure if life gives me lemons, I make lemonade."

But it might not be so easy for future elderly people, as the graying of West Michigan accelerates.

Census projections predict one in five Americans will be 65 or older by 2030 -- nearly double today's percentage.

To probe what this means for Kent County, a telephone survey of 500 county residents age 65 or older will be launched later this month.

Sponsored by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, the survey is part of an initiative begun in May that is geared to support an aging population.

In a high-speed world dominated by youth culture and new technology -- and a current statewide push to create "cool cities" by finding ways to retain young people -- it's easy to overlook this sizable but often silent group.

But Kate Luckert of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation thinks it would be wrong to underestimate the group's potential.

"We look at this as an asset," said Luckert, one of the initiative's leaders. "We want to accommodate their aspirations and their needs and work toward those. We are most interested in tapping into the resources they bring.

"We often look at this as a community of needs. We want to flip that and look at how to engage them and tap into their abilities."

The survey is designed to measure the awareness of seniors about the array of services available to them, including housing, safety, civic involvement, health care and independent living. It also is expected to furnish clues about the needs of the Hispanic elderly, which is growing much faster than the general population.

While the white population of older adults in Kent County grew by 22 percent from 1990 to 2000, black older adults increased by 39 percent and Hispanic older adults grew by 154 percent.Luckert expects that reaching out to aging Hispanics will be a challenge in the coming decades. "We recognize it's more than a language barrier. It's a culture barrier, too," she said.To ensure survey participation, Luckert said some of the questioners will speak Spanish. There are other challenges.

As the Baby Boom generation begins to retire, the numbers of seniors will steadily rise. That's led some to predict the eventual bankruptcy of Social Security and a growing crisis in the cost of prescription medication.

Jackie O'Connor, assistant director of the Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan, said the stress on those who care for the elderly will likely rise as well.

"Most of the care-giving for an older person, 80 percent, is done by family members, O'Connor said. "There is a limited amount that is paid for by public dollars. As we are living longer, care-giving is going to last longer."

About 7 percent -- or 4,200 -- of the county's estimated 60,000 residents over age 65 live in poverty, O'Connor said.

While aging can mean opportunity, O'Connor said it should also command compassion for those who need help.

"Now you can live 30-plus years after you retire. You can volunteer. You can do part-time work. And as you get frail, the community has got to take care of you."

At God's Kitchen in Grand Rapids, retired stockbroker Roger Alflen said the elderly can go a long way toward making both their life and that of their community better. Alflen has volunteered at the soup kitchen each Thursday for 11 years.

"I think senior citizens by and large are well-served to keep active, to do something to stay involved. It's a lot better than staying in a rocking chair and aging."

Grand Rapids Press Jul 9, 2004