For Dennis Streets and Council on Aging, Chatham’s ‘graying’ is an opportunity to serve

‘Many times, there is no one else doing it’

Posted 2/24/21

By Chatham County’s own admission, it’s skewing older.

Under the Population and Income Information section of the county’s website, the last sentence on age demographics reads: “Like many …

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For Dennis Streets and Council on Aging, Chatham’s ‘graying’ is an opportunity to serve

‘Many times, there is no one else doing it’

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By Chatham County’s own admission, it’s skewing older.

Under the Population and Income Information section of the county’s website, the last sentence on age demographics reads: “Like many counties, Chatham County is becoming ‘grayer,’ but doing so at a faster rate than surrounding counties.”

State data supports that claim. People 60 years and older now account for a third of Chatham County’s populace, according to 2018 data from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Much of serving that growing chunk is falling into the lap of Dennis Streets.

At 68, Streets finds himself as part of that increasing slice of the population. He also has a resume that illustrates four decades logged in the healthcare field, and has served as executive director of the Chatham Council on Aging since 2014.

“We are sort of viewed as a primary or single portal for information and assistance,” Streets said of the COA. “When a senior comes to us with a request for assistance, while someone else may be doing it, then we’re certainly going to help make a connection (to a needed service). But many times, there is no one else doing it.”

The council, he says, not only directs senior citizens to resources they could be eligible for, but also provides programming and services to Chatham’s older community. Some of the offerings from the non-profit include things like meal assistance, tax preparation, minor home repair services and resources for home care. That’s in addition to a litany of social programs aimed at keeping seniors engaged as a community.

And while the COA does spend plenty of time directing people to existing services, the organization often finds itself having to fill in the gaps.

‘Growing natural resource’

As Chatham positions itself to deal with an aging populace, Streets pointed out some issues the county faces that fall in line with national trends.

One is dealing with what he calls the “Silver Tsunami,” a reference to the expected rise of America’s senior population. Streets mentioned that seniors 85 and above are of particular concern.

“In the aggregate, that’s the greatest group needing home and community services and long term care and other forms of assistance,” he said.

Part of addressing that comes with making sure there is sufficient housing for care workers and home care aides, according to Streets. He said it’s not a new issue, or one that’s even unique to the county.

The other issue is being able to view “the senior population is one of our few growing natural resources.”

“You think about that and wonder, ‘Are we doing all we need to do to tap the talents, the wisdom, the experience of an older, mature population?’” Streets asked. “To keep them engaged, to keep them healthy and also contributing to the community?”

Before the pandemic, Streets said he had around 275 volunteers, the majority of which were seniors.

“They’ve been dormant right now mostly due to COVID-19, but it’s using those talents,” he said.

Creating an age-friendly community

Part of the COA’s mission statement is commitment to creating an age-friendly community. That essentially translates into a comprehensive set of planning that ranges from accessible infrastructure, healthcare availability, resource dispersion and education for life planning, according to Streets.

“The most obvious are the physical and accessible environments,” Streets explained.

That means things like transportation options that are both affordable and accessible. Streets said that could look like passing zoning laws that allow for garage apartments ­— he calls them “granny flats” — to be added onto homes, or constructing walkways that are just as easy for someone using a walker as a parent pushing a stroller. Essentially, it’s creating assets for communities that spread across multiple age groups.

“It’s also going to have a component that focuses on healthy aging,” he said. “It’s going to have access to dental care, to medical services, to vision and hearing care. It’s going to have food and nutrition, it’s going have immunization — which we now see as sorely needed. It’s going to have physicians that are accepting medicare and medicaid. It’s going to have mental health and behavioral health services.”

The COA moving forward

With people age 65 and older being among those first in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, we’re starting to get a peek at the first few days of the post-pandemic era, according to Streets. As for how the COA sees its own future — right now, in February, the time designated by Chatham Commissioners as “We Love Seniors” month — he’s leaving that decision in Chatham’s hands.

“One of the things that we want to try to do over the next two years is really engage the community in helping us decide what we need to be in the future,” he said. “We’re in our 46th year, and one of the things that you think about is our facility. We really had maxed out our space here at the Pittsboro center; it was just overrun. And now with COVID-19 and the emphasis of having the physical space becomes even more important.”

Streets said that could include changing programming to be more in line with public input. He said one concept he’d like to see is a senior center without walls, which means taking more programs and services into the community. He also mentioned he’s thankful for the support Chatham has already shown the COA, something he hopes will help sustain the non-profit over the next 20 years.

“We may continue to be connected with the larger community and we may be in a larger center,” he said. “All that said, we’ll have to grow as the needs grow, and it means hopefully some additional support from the public side, not just the county, but federal and state. It also means we’ll have to have continued support from the community.”

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