CLEARWATER – Her voice low, Paula Giakoumakis spoke about what it is like to be a caregiver for her partner, Nick Venezia, who has Alzheimer’s.
Listening to her, as she spoke about the services she has tapped into and a special program that helped her to understand what Venezia, 78, is experiencing, were dozens of advocates for the elderly and a state official.
They had gathered last Friday to discuss the results of a survey of older adults in Pinellas and Pasco counties, where nearly 30 percent of residents are aged 60 and above.
That day, Department of Elder Affairs Secretary Richard Prudom offered numbers of his own. Of Florida’s 21 million residents, 5.5 million are 60 and older, a number that’s expected to grow to 7.6 million in the next decade, he said.
“The senior population of Florida outnumbers the senior populations of 20 other states combined, as well as the total populations of Alaska, Delaware, the Dakotas, Rhode Island and Wyoming,” he continued, eliciting a smattering of chuckles.
While the session wasn’t precisely about numbers, data gleaned from the Community Assessment Survey of Older Adults is seen as key to helping the area address the needs and challenges of a growing population of older residents.
There was good news. Most Pinellas and Pasco seniors are happy in their communities, find opportunities to socialize and volunteer and would recommend the area to others.
But there are concerns about housing, affordability of health care, transportation and caregiver support. And while most seniors are pleased with the services available for older residents, some lack that information.
Meanwhile, about half of the counties’ residents say they prefer to get information by mail, while a smaller segment looks to television. Few are interested in finding what they need via social media, radio or even the Area Agency on Aging website.
The $68,130 survey was funded by the Pinellas Community Foundation, the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas, the counties of Pinellas and Pasco, and St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Dade City and New Port Richey.
Duggan Cooley, CEO of the Pinellas Community Foundation, said the idea grew out of a desire to learn about the older population and their needs. “If we are going to fund aging programs, we wanted to make sure that funding was aligned to known community needs,” he said.
“There were some issues that we believed would rise to the top, including affordable housing and transportation,” said Ann Marie Winter, executive director for the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas.
The top concern turned out to be access to affordable health care. “That’s why it is so important to get data,” Winter said. “If we are going to create a community where people want to grow up and grow old in, we need to create a community of services for seniors.”
Findings for Pinellas County indicated that some seniors have a problem finding affordable health insurance and paying for medications. Pasco County residents have similar concerns, in addition to getting oral health care.
The survey also revealed that about one in four caregivers “felt physically, emotionally or financially burdened."
“Nobody knows how difficult it is until you’re actually in it,” said Giakoumakis, 79, whose partner was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2014.
“As the years go on, you learn you need to take care of yourself,” she told the Tampa Bay Times.
Giakoumakis said she has gotten help for them both at the Aging Well Center in Clearwater, where they participated in programs before Venezia’s diagnosis. “And he still participates and he still does exercise classes. But a lot of people don’t know about the center,” she said.
She also takes Venezia to an adult day care. “I don’t know how I would survive it if I didn’t. The anxiety. When he’s here, I’m always watching if he’s going to fall or do something else or wander around,” she said.
Most older adults want to “age in place,” but many homes don’t have universal design features such as easy access for walkers and wheel chairs. More than half of those who responded to the survey said they have trouble doing heavy or intense housework. Some have problems paying their property taxes. Older residents in both counties had “minor problems” meeting daily expenses or finding work in retirement.
But the value of paid, part- and full-time work, together with unpaid work such as volunteering and caregiving by seniors added up to more than $4 billion in Pinellas County over a 12-month period, the report said. In Pasco, the contribution was $2 billion.
Laura Cantwell, associate state director for advocacy and outreach for AARP and a panelist in last Friday’s program, urged those who participated to share what they learned.
“The more we improve things for people who are aging, the more we are improving things for people of every age,” said Kathy Black, professor of aging studies and social work at the University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee.
A broad coalition will gather in January to determine how to align existing programs and services with what was learned from the survey, Cooley said.