Preparing For The Gray Tsunami

By Barney Blakeney

It was good getting the call from Mrs. Delaris Risher, former C.A. Brown High teacher and widow of the late Burke High and Charleston Rec. Dept. icon, Modie Risher. A fascinating and dedicated woman, Mrs. Risher is one of those women when in her presence, no matter how wild and crazy a guy could be, he straightens up and flies right. She’s always had that influence on me. She called to share a thought about a recent column I wrote in which I talked about growing older.

Mrs. Risher noted that at 66, I’m officially a member of the ‘Senior Citizens Club’. Never feel bad about growing older, she said, because a lot of people we know didn’t get the chance. Sage advice for a guy who still wants to do all the things he did when he was younger.

I recently had the opportunity to meet Charleston’s Mayor’s Office on Aging Coordinator Jamie Roper. She sent me some interesting information – currently 14.5 percent of the nation’s population is over age 65, the fastest growing age group in America. South Carolina ranks 12th in the nation for poverty among those over age 65. Eleven percent of the state’s poor are seniors unable to afford long term care medications or even groceries. Over 25 percent of the City of Charleston’s adults are over the age of 50 – more than 34,950 People.

I met Roper while doing a story about some folks facing displacement from a West Ashley senior housing complex. Last September I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Cynthia Gerideau-Richardson, a personable young woman of 71. Mrs. Gerideau-Richardson was challenging the management at the Grand Oak Apartments opened in 2000 as housing for low to moderate income senior residents and financed using federal funding with a stipulation the property would serve that constituency at least 30 years. But a loophole allows the owners to increase rental costs after 15 years. So in July, residents of Grand Oak were notified their rents would go up to market values in three years. That means single residents would have to earn more than $40,000 annually to continue living at the complex.

After meeting Gerideau-Richardson and talking with Roper who said our community’s aging population will continue to grow though we’re woefully unprepared for it, I thought I’d help Gerideau-Richardson rally the troops to battle the profiteering at the expense of an often very vulnerable population. I called Gerideau-Richardson several times to tell her I was with her in that struggle, but never got a return call. I learned a couple of weeks ago she passed away October 28. I suspect she passed away much as she had lived – accepting her fate, but battling away with style and grace while enjoying life despite its harshness. I only knew her for a minute, but I found her to be an incredible woman.

Meeting Gerideau-Richardson and getting information from Roper made me more aware of what Roper calls ‘the gray tsunami’. Lean not on your own understanding, they say. Well, my understanding of growing older and the gray tsunami tells me for those who are prepared for old age, the twilight years might be comforting and leisurely. But for the grasshoppers among us who danced and fiddled their youth away, old age might be more difficult.

In 1965 former President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed the coming gray tsunami by signing the Older American Act – that’s right, I never heard of it either – I googled it. Here’s what I got:

The Older Americans Act of 1965 was the first federal level initiative aimed at providing comprehensive services for older adults. It created the National Aging Network comprising the Administration on Aging on the federal level, state units on aging, and area agencies on aging at the local level. The network provides funding – based primarily on the percentage of an area’s population 60 and older – for nutrition and supportive home and community-based services, disease prevention/health promotion services, elder rights programs, the National Family Caregiver Support Program, and the Native American Caregiver Support Program.

“The stated purpose of the OAA is to ensure equal opportunity to the fair and free enjoyment of: adequate income in retirement; the best possible physical and mental health services without regard to economic status; suitable housing; restorative and long term care; opportunity for employment; retirement in health, honor, and dignity; civic, cultural, educational and recreational participation and contribution; efficient community services; immediate benefit from proven research knowledge; freedom, independence, and the exercise of self-determination; and protection against abuse neglect and exploitation.

“Funding for many Great Society programs as well as Johnson’s political capital, dwindled during the Vietnam War. Some programs and agencies were dismantled by later administrations, such as Nixon’s and Ford’s slow dissolution of the Office of Economic Opportunity. Other programs, such as those under the OAA, Medicare, Medicaid, and initiatives in the arts and humanities continue to survive.”

I’ve spent a few hours visiting nursing homes. Some are really great places, others not so great. Roper tells me most of the calls she gets for assistance concern housing. She said for older citizens who have prepared for housing in their later years, the issue won’t be severe. But for those who have not, it might be a considerable concern. Housing and healthcare are at the top of the list of senior citizens concerns, she said.

I don’t suspect my life growing older will be too tough; after all, He takes care of the sparrow. But beyond not being able to play basketball anymore I suspect I may have to think real hard on Mrs. Risher’s advice.

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