CHICAGO TRIBUNE, APRIL 30, 2013
While the weather in Highland Park and Deerfield can’t compare with the warm climes of Arizona or Florida, senior populations are steadily growing — prompting senior service providers in both communities to begin making plans.
Residents and officials are eager to hypothesize why the towns are so attractive, but Census statistics reveal only that both have increasing senior populations. Many say those numbers will likely expand as Baby Boomers reach retirement age and beyond.
Between 1980 and 2010, the percentage of Highland Park residents age 65 and older has more than doubled, according to Census data. In Deerfield, it’s nearly tripled.
One particularly eye-catching statistic is the percentage of residents 65 and older who live alone. In Highland Park, the number is 12.5 percent of the city’s occupied homes, according to 2010 Census data. In Deerfield, it’s 11.2 percent. For comparison, the national rate is 9.4 percent.
Betsy Brint, chairwoman of Highland Park’s Human Relations Commission, was shocked by the figure.
“It’s not like Florida or Arizona where it’s a senior Mecca,” Brint said. “You’re expected to find a million people (there). This is (thought of as) a ‘stroller’ community. You have a lot of young families, and people seem to think that life revolves around our schools and not our seniors.”
But that perception is beginning to change, said Brint.
And the need will almost assuredly be increasing, said Paul Dean, executive director of Family Service, which provides services for low income Lake County seniors and caregivers, including home visits.
“The 12.5 percent that we see today is going to look relatively small 10 or 12 years from now,” Dean said.
For Dean, the statistic of seniors living alone is a sign that more work needs to be done.
“If we had more resources we could serve many more thousands than that,” he said. “The need is very high, and the number of seniors living alone reflects the loss of a spouse, and sometimes there are not caregivers nearby.”
Depression among seniors — whether due to the loss of family members, or even their own mobility or physical faculties — is common, he said, and not everyone has access to helpful resources.
Deerfield’s Patty Turner Center employs a social service coordinator to help aging residents navigate through the myriad issues that may confront them as they grow older, said Manager David Shamrock. But in recent years, the center has created programming for younger, more active seniors — the Baby Boomers — noting that people are preferring to stay put rather than move to warmer climates, he added.
Meanwhile, the city-run Highland Park Senior Center has also seen an increase in members and program participation, said Don Miner, youth and senior services manager.
“The best example of it is ‘Cheers,’ on TV, where everybody knows your name,” Miner said. “Not to compare the Senior Center to a bar, but people coming here do feel it’s a very warm, friendly, accepting atmosphere.”
It offers programs such as guest lectures, bridge games, yoga and trips downtown for theatrical productions, like a recent excursion to see “The Book of Mormon.” Primarily, it creates a sense of community, Miner said.
“People who are living alone can feel isolated and get disconnected,” he said. “I think that’s a real valuable thing, to have a place to go.”
One debate that has been bubbling to the surface in recent years is whether to relocate the Senior Center from its current home on the east end of Laurel Avenue, overlooking Lake Michigan.
Parking is a challenge, the multi-level building is not ideal for seniors with mobility issues, and it is restricted from operating outside weekday hours because it is in a residential neighborhood, Miner said. Officials also worry the building itself is too remote to attract patrons from other parts of the city.
“I think anything that is in the center of town is going to reach more people, whether it’s a business down in crossroads or anything you can conveniently park and walk to,” Miner said. “…People generally don’t have a reason to be driving past our building. Unless they’re lost.”
A more centrally located senior center would be closer to downtown condominiums and two affordable senior housing facilities.
Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering said the relocation issue regularly resurfaces and warrants analysis.
“I don’t know that we’re meeting the needs of as many people as we could, and that’s the goal,” Rotering said.
To determine whether needs are being met, Rotering was instrumental last year in creating an ongoing effort to analyze what services are currently offered, as well as what gaps exist and how the city could better link its aging residents with helpful programs.
The Human Services Task Force is performing a needs assessment study for five demographic groups — seniors; youth; Latino and immigrant populations; economically disadvantaged; and those with physical and/or developmental disabilities.
Focus groups were conducted in April 2012, and a report including an inventory of available North Shore services is expected in the coming months, according to Brint, whose Human Relations Commission is overseeing the Task Force. The study will frame the discussion on how to continue planning for people like her father-in-law, who live their twilight years on the North Shore.
“Are their needs being met? I don’t know. We will definitely find out,” she said.