In a sweet little town like Cummington (or any of the hilltowns) it’s easy to imagine settling down and growing old. Be it visions of rocking chairs on the porch, listening to an evening brook burble, or sipping tea and kitting by the warm winter fire, there is a comfort out here that speaks to resting our bones, settling in like old foundation stones. And there is nothing wrong with the romance of those images, but we all know it’s not so simple to live a simple life. How can we set ourselves up to enjoy our sunset years and still live in the rural hilltowns? How do we access vital resources, stay relevant in the face of ever changing technology, or simply make new friends? Luckily, there are folks here already figuring that out ahead of us.
In Massachusetts each town has its own Council On Aging (COA), these are all operated under the Executive Office of Elder Affairs. Towns and cities with larger populations have Senior Centers, with many staff members and robust program offerings, but out here in the hills we have smaller organizations that run each town’s COA. These are managed by flexible individuals who fulfill many roles, in Cummington we have Chrisoula Roumeliotis, the town COA Coordinator.
Chrisoula has been working as Coordinator for the last four years and acts as the event organizer, resource coordinator, networking manager, and anything else the organization and people of Cummington need. Fortunately she is not alone, she works with other local COA organizers, in a consortium of seven towns (Chesterfield, Cummington, Goshen, Plainfield, Westampton, Williamsburg, and Worthington). These coordinators come together once a month to share ideas and problem solve with each other. They also share grant money and have access to the same training programs, instructors, and facilitators. The Cummington COA also has a very active 4-person board of directors who help with activities and events, to support Chrisoula in all her endeavors and help guide the long range vision of the organization.
The COA is funded through state grants, starting with a formula grant based on population. Cummington doesn’t exceed the minimum population and is awarded 7k as a base level of funding.
From there the COA receives generous funding from the Town of Cummington, as well as working with the consortium to apply for additional grants, and through donations from generous individuals who want to see the COA’s work continue. The COA Mission Statement is as follows:
“The purpose of this organization is to provide and promote programs, activities and services to the Senior Citizens of the Town of Cummington. The mission of the Cummington COA is to identify the unique needs and interests of our senior citizens and implement programs that help elders to live dignified and independent lives in a growing aging community.”
The needs of our aging population, starting at 60 and ranging into their 90’s, is diverse and unique for each town. In Cummington roughly a third of the population is over 60. In Plainfield it’s even higher, above 40%.A hidden benefit to having a single coordinator in a small town is that Chrisoula gets to know individuals and their needs.
She can connect locals who want to help out to those who need it most. But it can be hard to translate that sort of information at a state level. Part of the work the COA does is provide information, courses, and workshops to help folks apply for assistance. From fuel to food, there are programs to help people – and yet there are still stories of folks stoically suffering through the coldest months when they could qualify for the benefits their own taxes paid for. There is nothing wrong with applying, and, in fact, if folks don’t apply the state won’t know the scope of need in our area and it’s possible that sufficient resources won’t be allocated in the future. The COA provides information on what papers are needed and often offers access to one-on-one help to finish and submit those papers.
But this sort of thinking applies to other resources as well, including ride services for essential trips. There are options, but unless they are utilized they can suffer from loss of funding and disuse. There is a van that helps, as well as a ride service. Folks need to be able to depend on this sort of service for simple things like meds and groceries, but if we want these services to improve we need to use them and provide input on them.
One of the biggest issues facing our aging population is understanding and engaging with new and ever shifting technologies. Both digital literacy and accessibility are huge priorities for the COA. In a world where medical services are progressively being pushed to digital – from medical charts to prescriptions, and even online consultations – folks who don’t own, don’t understand, or can’t connect to the internet are at an incredible disadvantage. The difference between generations becomes even more pronounced when you consider how fast things shift.
Even savvy folks who like to stay hip with the new tech can be left behind. This very problem was highlighted in the last year when funding for the consortium’s newsletter ran out at the end of their last fiscal year.
Thanks to the hard work of representative Lindsay N. Sabadosa and Senator Paul W. Mark a line item was included to fund the Newsletter for another year. Both have been known to show up for the consortium meetings, and even a pot-luck dinner, and their support is crucial to the hilltown COAs.
But what comes after this year is a question on Chrisoula’s mind. Many would ask why the newsletter can’t simply be digital. The printing costs are a huge part of the endeavors expenses. But Chrisoula knows folks who still clip articles to put on their fridge, and who love to read their paper copies. The newsletter has information about ongoing programs but also pieces on how to get your papers in order and where to store them, it has details on applying for MassHealth and other key bits of information that would be a terrible loss for folks who couldn’t access it.
Fortunately, the consortium has secured a grant for Digital Equity, which includes computer classes and instruction for how best to use smartphones. The grant can help folks with hook-up fees to the high speed internet, and possibly even help provide devices with which to access essential services and budding technology. The next problem however, is convincing people that they should.
The newsletter is a key piece, but it represents the events and classes that they provide weekly. From movement to painting, there is a social coffee hour, and weekly grab-and-go meals. Every other month there is a Pot-luck where board members cook for everyone, the most popular being their holiday-themed meals. Including a Thanksgiving meal, for 60+, next week!
On Wednesday, November 15th, from Noon-1:30pm at the Cummington Community House, where they will offer turkey and all the fixin’s for free. They also provide access to medical equipment and have a lending program to offset costs. They even organize multigenerational dances during the warmer months, with a DJ and everything. There’s so many wonderful things the COA offers it’s hard to list them all.
So if you or someone you know could benefit, please, reach out to your local COA. They truly want to help folks, let them know your needs, if they can help with even a small piece it would make them so happy to know they could.
If you want to help they always need volunteers. If you’re politically active, you can write letters telling state reps that the COA is awesome and what they and other towns COAs are doing is meaningful. This helps keep the COA in representatives minds when it comes time to make those important funding decisions. If you have a knowledge base, wisdom, or skills you’d like to share, they’re open to that. And if you have any interest in the board of directors, they always need members!
Finally, donations are always welcome and go a long way towards helping your aging neighbors continue to receive the wonderful offerings and services of your local COA.