Local, State, and Federal Initiatives Make Our Communities More Senior Friendly

In order to better serve the growing number of seniors in our area, Mecklenburg County launched a strategic plan in May 2003 called the Status of Seniors Initiative (SOSI). This focus on the ever-increasing senior population and their needs has led to significant progress for our community.

First, the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) funded a greatly reinvigorated Council on Aging (COA), which is becoming the premier advocacy and resource center for seniors. The COA Board has completed a business plan and a two year work plan for staff. The COA has updated their web site, is building a database to help disseminate information, and is working on a “senior registry” to identify persons who may need assistance in a disaster.

The need for assistance is a key issue for seniors, so the next step for the SOSI committee was to make caregiving information more accessible in Mecklenburg County. The group developed a pamphlet to assist caregivers in identifying their needs and locating resources. The addition of the second Caregiver Support Specialist, funded by the BOCC and housed in DSS Services for Adults, has assisted in the distribution of this pamphlet, which is now in its 3rd publication. Caregivers for this generation are traditionally taking care of other seniors; however, special attention to a new audience of caregivers has initiated a collaborative program targeting grandparents who are raising grandchildren

The buck doesn’t stop here. There has also been activity regarding transportation advocacy and community healthcare education. The Transportation Independence Committee is dealing with issues such as how to better inform the community about transportation options, and how to better manage the resources of CATS, STS, MTS and community transportation providers. Members of this committee will promote efforts to expand transportation services to seniors through the use of bus passes rather than the more expensive cab vouchers. Another initiative has focused on education and assistance to seniors regarding Medicare D, which is available through the Senior Centers, MedAssist and other health care organizations in the county.

One of the most important recommendations stemming from this group was the adoption of planning standards that create physical environments allowing seniors to stay at home and remain engaged in the community. The Physical Environment Committee joined with the Charlotte Chamber, the Home Builders Assn. Realtors Assn. and REBIC (Real-estate, Building & Industry Council) to hold a workshop entitled “The Business of Building a Senior- Friendly Mecklenburg.” Senior friendly road designs, cross walks and street signs are beginning to appear, notably on the South Boulevard corridor.

State Initiatives

The State of North Carolina has also proactively taken steps to address the increasing senior population. At the State Level, there are three major changes underway:

  1. Adult Protective Services (APS) Reform: The State continues to work towards changes that will allow intervention to “at risk” adults. In current state law, in order for APS intervention to occur, harm must have occurred. This change would allow intervention before harm occurs.
  2. Guardianship Reform: These reforms would change the definition of “incompetence” from a diagnostic to a functional one, and would allow funding for the care of people who are found to be incompetent. Currently, an incompetent person has only those resources for which they would otherwise be eligible. If those resources are inadequate, there is no funding to assist with placement, medications and other needs.
  3. Adult Care Home Best Practices: A star rating system for Adult Care Homes (Assisted Living) is nearing completion. This would allow consumers to more easily determine the quality of a home they are considering.

Another important change by the State affecting seniors was legislation (H1499) amending the Homestead Exclusion, which provides property tax relief to low-income taxpayers 65 and older and the permanently disabled. The changes increase the income threshold to qualify for the exemption to $25,000 (up from $20,500) with an annual indexing thereafter according to Social Security Cost of Living Adjustments. It also increases the amount of the exclusion to $25,000 or 50 percent of the assessed value (an increase of $5,000).

The legislation also creates a circuit breaker property tax deferral program, beginning in July 2009, for residents who have owned and occupied property as a permanent residence for at least five years and are either 65 years or older or permanently disabled. The income limit is 50 percent higher than for the Homestead Exclusion. Taxpayers who qualify for the Homestead Exclusion could choose to take the exclusion or to defer property taxes that exceed 4 percent of their income. For taxpayers with incomes between $25,000 and $37,500, they can defer taxes that exceed 5 percent of their income.

For example, a qualifying taxpayer with a home valued at $150,000 would have a county tax bill of $1,258. If the taxpayer earns $25,000 in income, she may defer any taxes that exceed 4 percent of her income. Therefore she could defer $258.

Federal Initiatives

At the Federal level, the Administration on Aging (AoA) continues to emphasize the prevention of premature nursing home placements and the coordination and development of Aging Disability Resource Centers (ADRC). North Carolina currently has two ADRCs and is adding two more. Programs which promoted prevention of illness and aging in place received the most funding this year. Senior Nutrition and Caregiver programs were also emphasized. An example of this type of program is the collaboration of our Senior Citizens Nutrition Program with Arthritis Patient Services to improve senior mobility and health by self-pain management of arthritis symptoms.

All of these public initiatives will provide a better quality of life for our citizens and bring us a few steps closer to making our city, state and country… truly senior friendly.

Jennifer Watson Roberts is a native of Charlotte and the current Chairman of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners. Roberts was the former executive director of the Charlotte World Affairs Council from 1997 until 2002. She has served as a County Commissioner since 2004, and is currently an adjunct professor in the International Studies Department at UNC-Charlotte. A Morehead Scholar, she is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill with degrees in English and Math, has a Masters Degree in International Affairs from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC and a Masters in European History from the University of Toronto.
Her community involvement in Charlotte is extensive. She served on the board of the Mayor’s International Cabinet, World Affairs Councils of America (in Washington, DC), the British American Business Council of North Carolina, and the Latin American Chamber of Commerce. She has also been active with numerous other organizations, including the Arts and Science Council, the Girl Scouts, SmartStart, Keep Mecklenburg Beautiful, Charlotte Mecklenburg Housing Partnership, UNC-Charlotte, and International House. She is married to Manley Roberts and has two children.