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COUNTY REPORT: Confronting the Age Crisis : Agencies Struggle to Meet Rising Needs of the Elderly : Health: About 63,000 county residents are over 65. A network of care givers reaches out to those in danger of falling into a deadly downward spiral.

December 17, 1995|MACK REED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Social workers call it the downward spiral--a deadly syndrome that sucks too many of Ventura County's older residents away to an early grave:

* Weary of his elderly wife's constant coughing, a 90-year-old Fillmore man allegedly throttles the life from her.

* A depressed, 80-year-old pianist shoots his ailing spouse to death in Ventura, then kills himself.

* And a grieving, disabled Ventura woman shuts herself in, all but giving up on her health, home and life until diabetic shock throws her into the hospital.

The decline begins with failing health. And then:

"You get into that downward spiral of not being able to do for yourself," explained Mary Leu Pappas, a county visiting public health nurse. "First thing to go is housekeeping, then you're not able to get out and get food, and nutrition.

"And when you're not eating properly, you're not thinking properly, and maybe you're forgetting to take those medications you need so badly," added Pappas, who cares for elderly shut-ins. "That begins the spiral that we're trying to stop."

The powerful vortex of ill health, loneliness and corrosive depression saps the spirit of many older people in Ventura County, social workers say.

Nearly one-fourth of the 63,000 Ventura County residents over age 65 have trouble getting around or taking care of themselves, according to the Area Agency on Aging, a federally funded umbrella for elder services. Of those 63,000, one-fifth live alone--more than four out of five of them women.

A broad network of help for the aged stretches across Ventura County.

Public health nurses and in-home volunteers cook meals, prepare medication, do chores and help elderly shut-ins who might otherwise be consigned to nursing homes.

Dial-a-ride programs carry the carless from point to point. Meals-on-Wheels programs feed them. Mental health workers counsel them. And senior centers give them a place to meet and seek support ranging from computer classes and health clinics to crafts workshops and legal advice.

But Ventura County's programs for the aged have been warned: Expect to have your state and federal funding slashed this year by anywhere from 8% to 23%. And program directors are struggling to keep a grip on what money they have left.

"What we're pushing now and advocating is that Ventura County knows more about where we should spend our moneys that are going to be allocated to us than does Washington or Sacramento," said John Eslick of the Area Agency on Aging.

"We can't expect Big Mama or Big Daddy in Washington to keep sending more of this money down," said Eslick, chairman of a countywide committee of advisors who guide the agency. "We have to ration the moneys we get [so] we get the best care for the most people."

*

As U.S. and California budget cutters consider laying waste to social programs for the aged, the elderly people of Ventura County are growing needier and more numerous each year.

The 1990 U.S. census predicted that by 2015, the number of Ventura County residents aged 75 and older will have risen by 64%. By that year, census takers predict, the number of county residents aged 85 and older will have swollen by 163%.

Elder-care agencies are scrambling to augment their programs--already shrunken by past budget cuts--with volunteers.

The county Personnel Department is launching the largest of these efforts--a new elder-help program called Volunteer Opportunity Center for Active Living, or VOCAL--with an orientation meeting Jan. 24 at the county government center.

The new program will need volunteers throughout Ventura County's elder-care agencies to clean house for the county's frailer residents, give rides or lend a friendly ear.

Volunteers also might be assigned a few hours a day to give a rest to older people who are all but burned out by the round-the-clock demands of caring for spouses suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

VOCAL hopes to draft the elderly themselves, and may even let pre-screened adult and juvenile offenders work off their community service sentences by helping the aged, said program coordinator Hui Ling Tanouye.

"I don't know how well it would work," Tanouye said of the probation idea. "But we have to identify what all the [possible] volunteers are."

Many agencies are running short on volunteers.

Caregivers, an 11-year-old nonprofit group that sends helpers into aged people's homes in Ventura, Santa Paula and Fillmore, is desperate for volunteers, said Pat Meredith, its director.

"We're limited by the number of volunteers we can recruit, and our appeals for help have risen 10% in the last year," Meredith said. "Care for the elderly is not a glamour issue. It doesn't have the same appeal to people as homelessness and child abuse and AIDS right now, and it's just harder to raise money for the elderly."

Program administrators are scrambling to keep the county's elderly from being squeezed between the dwindling aid and their own rising numbers, said Colleen House, director of the Area Agency on Aging.

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