Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Behind the request to renew Calhoun County’s Senior Millage, are seniors who rely on the services provided through funding generated by that millage to stay fed, active, and healthy.
Lois Leist, who turns 87 this year, says renewing that .7452 mills is very important to her because the services it pays for help her to maintain some level of independence. Leist is slowly losing her vision to macular degeneration and has had to give up driving. Transportation provided for seniors through the Community Action Agency gets her to eye appointments.
“I knew I would have to give up driving and that’s been a real hard thing because you don’t realize how many times you use your vehicle to go here and there,” Leist says.
Liest’s daughter gets her to the grocery store, but she says she doesn’t like to bother people and tries to “make do.” Liest says she would be homebound were it not for rides through the CAA.
The Community Action Agency spends about $500,000 annually to maintain 12 vans for the Senior Transportation program, one of the 22 programs funded through the $2.7 million generated each year by the millage, says Helen Guzzo, Manager, Calhoun County Senior Services. In 2019, that program provided 30,608 rides to 676 seniors for medical appointments, trips to the grocery store, and social outings.
“CAA can’t operate that program without Senior Millage funding,” she says.
The request which appears on the Aug. 4 ballot won’t raise taxes because it is the renewal of an existing millage. It currently costs the owner of a $100,000 home $37.50 per year, Guzzo says. The vote is on a 10-year renewal that was first passed by voters in 1996 and was last authorized in 2010 by a 79 percent approval.
Joan Ivany, 77, says she thinks people don't realize how many services Senior Services provides and the importance of the millage funding unless they have senior family members who use those services.
Prior to the state-mandated shutdowns because of COVID-19, Ivany was a regular participant in Senior Fitness and Fun supervised exercise programs offered by Senior Health Partners at different locations throughout the county. Although the classes have been temporarily suspended, walking clubs have been started at area parks to give seniors an opportunity to stay active and engaged while observing social distancing guidelines.
Ivany credits the exercise classes with helping her to manage her arthritis.
“I don’t take anything for pain. I think it’s because of the exercises they taught me,” she says.
Before social distancing temporarilly shut down exercise classes, seniors learned how to keep pains at bay through exercise.
Since the suspension of the classes instructors have been reaching out to participants by phone every week to make sure they’re doing well. Ivany says she appreciates the calls because they help with stress brought on by the pandemic.
“People think seniors shouldn’t be under stress, but changes are hard and it’s harder for seniors, so if you can get out and do things it helps,” she says.
Leist has been participating in Senior Fitness and Fun classes for more than seven years. She says for her the opportunity to socialize with others is just as important as the exercise.
“It was really important for me after my husband died. I didn’t know what to do with myself,” Leist says. “There’s a little bit of socializing and it gets you out. It’s constructive because it gives you different ideas with the health issues people might have.”
Last year 487 seniors exercised 11,734 times at 14 sites across the county, according to Guzzo.
Besides the exercise and transportation programs, Senior Millage dollars fund Meals on Wheels; Prescription, Home-Heating and Legal assistance programs; Dental, Hearing and Vision services; Benefits Counseling; Minor Home Repairs; and options that enable seniors to stay in their homes. These programs are administered by 10 community nonprofits that partner with the Senior Millage.
Volunteers prepare meals for Senior Services of Southwest Michigan.
As an example, Senior Millage partners with Summit Pointe, Bronson Battle Creek, Senior Care Partners/P.A.C.E., and the Battle Creek Y Center to fund Senior Health Partners. Senior Health Partners provides a Community Care Option program that provides in-home nurse assessments and limited homemaking assistance to seniors who are starting to experience a decline.
Guzzo says 200 seniors are receiving assistance for two to three hours each week through this program.
“There are lots of seniors who can’t raise their hands, so they just don’t change their bed. As people start to become more frail they have to make adjustments,” Guzzo says. “This program enables seniors to stay in their homes and get help that they can’t get from their families or may not be able to afford to get elsewhere.”
She says Senior Millage-funded services are coordinated and they have all been developed to address different unmet needs of older adults living in the community.
One of the largest programs that Senior Millage funds is Meals on Wheels, matching state and federal funding, so that there is not a waitlist for home-delivered meals in the County, Guzzo says.
“Meals on Wheels wouldn’t have been able to ramp up and expand to meet the needs of seniors during this pandemic without Senior Millage dollars, which fund 48 percent of Calhoun County’s Meals on Wheels,” she says.
In total, Senior Millage funded programs served more than 6,500 seniors, age 60 and over last year.
Guzzo says there are 32,434 seniors in Calhoun County. They represent 24 percent of the county’s total population of 134,473.
“Every year our senior population has grown by at least one percent, Guzzo says. “As our population ages, it is critical that we have programs and services available to support them.”