the senior center boasts a full house for their annual March Madness fundraiser. <span class='image-credits'>Jennifer Knightstep</span>

Why St. Clair County is a great place to grow old

County-wide access to a wide range of services is increasingly important for those moving into that last trimester of life. Baby Boomers now entering their senior years (65 and older) make up nearly 25,000 of St. Clair County residents. That's about 15 percent of the population, according to the 2010 U.S. census, and hundreds more join their ranks every year. These Boomers are also living longer, healthier lives, waiting longer to retire, and expect to be productive members of their community well into their 80s and beyond.

Even though some older residents resist the very idea of senior citizenship, Scott Crawford, Executive Director of the Council on Aging, serving St. Clair County, says his staff has noticed a dramatic uptick in the demand for programs and services geared towards people over 60.

CoA develops over the years

The Council on Aging was founded in 1967 by some concerned citizens in Port Huron, providing programs to senior citizens in accordance with the 1965 Older Americans Act. They incorporated a year later and began offering social events and programs at Desmond Senior Housing in Port Huron to an initial membership of 50 seniors.

The senior transportation service, Crawford says, began as the first city-led program of its kind several decades ago. "Port Huron was the first city in the U.S. to offer dedicated transportation to its senior residents," he explains, adding that due to budget constraints in the recent recession, the city turned over its set of cars to the Council to use, maintain, and manage. The service provides rides to and from doctor's appointments, grocery stores, and even to pay a friend a visit.

Meals became available to CoA members in 1971. The senior nutrition program, which is similar to Meals on Wheels, provides a nutritious meal to more than 1,000 seniors every day. In 1973, CoA programs were established in Algonac and Marine City.

There's more to the service than just a hot meal. "Sometimes the person delivering the meal is the only person our senior will see that entire day," Crawford says. "There have been times when a senior has been in medical distress, or has fallen, and they knew they'd be okay because they knew our person would be there that day to help them."

The Council on Aging, Inc., serving St. Clair County is a private non-profit agency whose programs and services are funded all or in part by the St. Clair County Senior Service Millage; federal and state grants through the Area Agency on Aging 1-B and the Michigan Office of Services to the Aging under the Older Americans Act; and the Corporation for Nation.

Fundraisers and donations are key to the success of each location and each program, Crawford says, but to keep the Council operating requires the dedication of dozens of volunteers and a county-wide millage. "St. Clair County residents know how valuable our programs and services are," Crawford says. In 2014, St. Clair County residents passed the Senior Citizens Service Millage by a 78 percent margin that included the previous 0.5 mil and the 0.3 mil increase on one ballot proposal for a total of 0.8 mil.

Most nearby counties don't have anything like the level of services provided in St. Clair County, says Crawford. If they do have a few programs, they're piecemeal and there isn't an overarching system in place to help the seniors who need them. For example, in Macomb County, the Meals on Wheels program is not coordinated by an organization like the Council on Aging, where other services would be offered, as well. And the community's continued commitment to millage funding proves that programs and services for seniors are a high priority in St. Clair County. 

Services, programs and opportunities

One local Boomer who visits the Council's Marine City location at the Washington Life Center is Deb Franquist, 60, who's been taking advantage of several programs daily for about a year. "I decided it was time to get off the couch," Franquist says. She participates in daily one-mile walks at the center and – three days a week – takes a "Total Rebound" fitness class. She credits the exercise programs with lowering her cholesterol, and adds that it's been done without the need for medication. She even won a medal in the past "Senior Olympics" event hosted by the Council.

Franquist enjoys more at the senior center than her fitness regimen – she's also taken a pottery class, something she'd never tried before and loves. A natural byproduct of participating in the classes has been companionship. "If you want to be active and enjoy meeting people of all walks of life, this is the place to go," she says. "It's a hidden secret in Marine City."

Sure, there's the stereotypical bingo and bridge, but the CoA also offers a new "hand and mouth" card game and popular "pickle ball" sports activity. CoA Programmer Karen Jolicoeur at the Port Huron senior center says regardless of what brings someone through their doors, they make sure they're able to take advantage of all of the programs and services. Even, yes, those who are still active and healthy, who refuse their senior discount on principle.

There's also the Starpath Adult Day Service, which provides daycare for memory-impaired seniors, and the Foster Grandparent Program – matching local children with a senior for mentoring, tutoring, storytelling and just plain fun. There are services, too, for seniors in need of help around the house, including home repairs (such as fixing leaky faucets or installing safety handrails), access ramp installation, light housekeeping, bigger chores, yard work, and personal care. Jolicoeur adds that the Council offers many programs and services seniors need, but aren't even aware of.

"Oftentimes, someone will request a particular service, like an access ramp, and we'll do an in-home assessment, then realize we could be doing even more to help."

For the adventurous, they also have a travel department that books various trips, from weeks-long trips to Britain and Ireland to a week in New York City, to day-trips to the Detroit Historical Society, Broadway shows at the Fisher Theater, and even Tigers' games at Comerica Park, said Jolicoeur.

Becoming a member of CoA

Anyone can become a member, regardless of age. The cost is $10 a year for an individual, or $15 a year for any two people who share the same address. There are four offices in St. Clair County: Port Huron, Marine City ("Downriver"), Yale and a new location in Capac. Once that initial contact is made, you'll have access to a wealth of information and the full range of programs and services where, really, anyone of any age is welcome.

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