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The number of people 65 and older in Southern Maryland is steadily increasing, according to the U.S. Census document “Maryland Department of Planning Population Projections.” By 2040, that population is projected to increase by more than 150 percent.

There were 10,780 people 65 and older in St. Mary’s County in 2010. Thirty years from now, the estimate is 28,450, according to the census document.

This senior boom is reflected in growing participation in programs and services offered at the three counties’ departments that serve seniors during retirement, help them find housing and long-term care and encourage them to stay active and involved in the community.

One way the aging population growth has been reflected in Charles County is through the Meals on Wheels home delivery program offered by the Charles County Department of Community Services Aging and Senior Programs Division, said department chief Dina Barclay.

Meals on Wheels, also available in St. Mary’s and Calvert counties, is run in Charles by volunteers, Barclay said, and is “a reflection of the aging community.” When the program began in Charles in 1996, about 14,000 meals were served.

Now the program has 180 volunteers, she said, which allowed the department to serve about 35,000 meals to people in the county last year.

“Growth in that has been a great example of one area that has been impacted by the aging of our community,” Barclay said, adding that the department has seen more requests for all services.

Learning what’s next

Once some people reach age 60, they might not know what’s next in regard to retirement, health care or finances. The client services division of the Calvert County Office on Aging offers a range of services to assist seniors in those areas, said Tunya Taylor, client services manager.

“Usually when [people] come to me or someone on my team, there is an issue that needs to be worked out ... and they don’t know where to go,” Taylor said. “We address housing, health insurance, assistance with utilities, phone care services, transportation, caregiving and just overall information and assistance. Sometimes that just means answering questions or pointing seniors in the right direction, sometimes it means bringing them in and working with them one on one getting forms completed, papers filed, that sort of thing.”

A concern Taylor said she typically hears from Calvert seniors is how to sign up for health insurance. Many people who have Medicare also have Medicare Part D for their prescription coverage, Taylor said. Client services will help people fill out paperwork and search for the appropriate prescription plan. Client services also explores options for people who have no health insurance at all, she said.

Jennifer Hunt, community programs and outreach manager for the St. Mary’s County Department of Aging and Human Services, said the division of senior assistance is the first line of defense for people who have questions about joining Medicare.

Barclay said she believes the economy has been a factor in more seniors seeking assistance through the region’s three departments. “We have people coming to us now for assistance for things like energy bills that never would have had a need before,” Barclay said. “A lot of those folks are really kind of new and unexpected. They’ll tell you, ‘I never thought I’d be somebody who needed this kind of help.’”

Taylor said she receives phone calls from many Calvert residents seeking help paying utility bills.

Hunt said if people are having problems paying their electric bills in St. Mary’s and don’t know where to go, the senior information assistance division can find the answer or reach out to a connection in the community.

Those who are financially eligible can apply for the Maryland Energy Assistance Program, Taylor said. The program is not just for seniors, but client services can get the necessary documents and fill them out properly.

Elizabeth Brooks, 62, of Prince Frederick said she first started applying for MEAP about 10 years ago and receives assistance paying her heating and electric bills.

“I wouldn’t have heat. I wouldn’t be able to keep the house warm” without MEAP, Brooks said.

Usually, Brooks said, she fills out all of the proper paperwork to apply for MEAP herself but then brings it to the office on aging so they can “double-check my work.”

Many senior citizens, Brooks said, are quietly struggling to pay their bills and don’t realize they may qualify for energy assistance. “It’s something worthwhile to look into,” she said.

Although none of the three county governments provide senior housing, they do provide lists of available housing and counseling for what type of housing might be right for them.

“We don’t oversee any of the housing units for seniors … but we make sure we have a contact sheet with all of the names and addresses of the senior housing buildings,” Taylor said.

Many people believe senior centers are residential, Hunt said, but they aren’t.

“We can offer you information to find housing,” she said. “We can give you a list so you know what housing options are out there. We can’t speak for one housing over another, but we’re there to let you know what each housing center offers.”

In St. Mary’s, the home- and community-based services division helps people who are caring for an aging loved one in the home, Hunt said.

She said that right now, the division is seeing a “sandwich generation,” where someone who has a child in school may also care for a parent or in-law and need support. The division also helps people who may have been caring for a loved one for a long time and are burned out and need help, she said.

Taylor said that for those seeking help in the Caregivers Support Group, client services “like for them to walk away with some type of game plan, a solution.”

She said client services will do as much as possible and take advantage of whatever services are available to benefit those seeking help.

Staying healthy, active and social

Peggy Reardon said she started attending the Garvey Senior Activity Center in Leonardtown about seven years ago, when she moved to St. Mary’s, because she thought it would be a good place to “go do things and meet people.”

“I went over there and everybody was so friendly, so I kept going back,” said the 80-year-old Leonardtown resident.

Reardon said she doesn’t just frequent the center for one specific program but participates in fitness classes and fundraising activities, plays cards and bingo, makes greeting cards for the troops and teaches knitting classes.

“I think [it has] helped me stay younger,” Reardon said.

The Garvey center and the other two centers in St. Mary’s, the Northern Senior Activity Center in Charlotte Hall and the Loffler Senior Activity Center in Great Mills, have had an increase in participants, Hunt said, resulting in the addition of new recreational and social programs.

“People assume we just play cards and bingo,” Hunt said. “While that’s a fun activity and we have people that are interested in that, that’s not all we do. Research has shown that people have the desire to stay active, healthy and involved. That’s why our senior activity centers keep expanding.”

Most recently, the St. Mary’s centers have added fitness classes, including tai chi for arthritis and pickle ball, which Hunt said is a “cross between ping pong, tennis and badminton.”

Reardon said she started participating in the tai chi classes when they began because “It’s very gentle, which is what I can do.”

Seniors in Calvert and Charles also have expressed more interest in staying fit.

Several exercise programs are available at the three senior centers in Calvert for people with various fitness levels, said Keri Lipperini, program manager for the office on aging.

For those that may be a little more active, weightlifting, aerobics and Pilates-type programs are offered. For others who may have difficulty walking, there is a “walk with ease” program, she said.

Betty Lerose, 85, said she first visited the Calvert Pines Senior Center in Prince Frederick about eight years ago after moving from New York. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Lerose said, she participates in the low-impact exercise programs.

“The exercise program helps with arthritis,” Lerose said, adding that people who want to lose weight also participate in those classes.

A new fitness program at the centers in Charles is called A Matter of Balance, Barclay said, and is designed to help people who are at risk for falls, who are trying to improve their mobility or who want to learn how to manage their body after falling. The centers are also trying to implement a “multi-step program,” she said, which will teach people how to stay fit and understand healthy nutrition.

“Fitness programs are just huge,” Barclay said.

The Richard R. Clark Senior Center in La Plata, the Indian Head Senior Center, the Nanjemoy Senior Center and the Waldorf Senior Center all offer programs other than fitness classes, including “health education to crafting to billiards and card clubs,” Barclay said.

One program seniors have shown significant interest in is the computer classes, Barclay said. She said the classes are for people who may not have grown up with computers and are curious how to use them or are just not familiar with the Internet.

Many seniors want to take the classes, Barclay said, to communicate with their grandchildren or because they “want to know what people are talking about” in the community.

Other types of programs offered at Calvert Pines, the North Beach Senior Center and the Southern Pines Senior Center in Lusby, Lipperini said, range from living-well programs, a six-week program that helps people with chronic illnesses, to luncheons and parties. The reason for having such a “large scope of programs,” Lipperini said, is because people from ages 50 to 90 and older take advantage of programs at the centers.

“We try to have programs that we offer to those that are younger and are a little more active to those that are older,” Lipperini said.

A popular social program at the centers is the eating together program, which is a by-donation lunch for those ages 60 and older, said Susan Justice, division chief for the office on aging. Often a form of entertainment — such as singing, dancing or acting — is incorporated into the lunch, she said.

Jerry O’Neil said he and his brother, Terry, started frequenting Calvert Pines about four years ago and enjoy the eating together program three times a week.

“When I retired, me and my brother decided to come in and check out what was going on,” said O’Neil, 67, of Prince Frederick. “We come up for coffee in the morning, and all the men talk together, and the women. We do three days a week for lunch.”

Not all of the programs offered at the centers are free, Lipperini said, but those that are not free are affordable. She said that because the participation in senior center activities and programs has increased, she has applied for and received grants to help expand some of the programs, but “unfortunately, the grants only expand for so long,” she said.

Justice said the Calvert County government supports the majority of the office’s budget for the centers’ programs. Much of the funding from the federal and state levels has decreased, she said.

Because the aging population is only projected to grow, Justice said the staff must keep thinking.

“There’s never going to be enough money, so we have to be creative and work with partners to find solutions,” Justice said.

More funding, Hunt said, is directly linked to the demand for more services. Like Justice, Hunt said the need for more funding will always exist and that St. Mary’s is “optimizing our programs and services on what we currently have.” The sources funding the department recognize the value of its programs and services and continue to support it, Hunt said.

kfitzpatrick@somdnews.com