Rockbridge prepares to ride the gray wave

By Hannah Denham

A “gray wave” of the baby boomers is fast approaching.  

Seniors citizens in Rockbridge County will make up almost 40 percent of the population by 2020, said Jeri Schaff, executive director of the Valley Program for Aging Services.  

“The numbers are staggering,” she said. “We need to be talking and thinking now about how to address this.”

Schaff outlined three key challenges facing senior citizens when she spoke at the March 12 meeting of the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors. She said Rockbridge County lacks accessibility to healthy food, transportation services and affordable housing options.  

Debbie Branham, director of the Maury River Senior Center, said access to affordable food is difficult because the area lacks accessible grocery stores and healthy food providers.  

A Meals on Wheels volunteer delivers food to home-bound seniors. (Photo by Hannah Denham)

Programs like Campus Kitchen, Rockbridge Area Relief Association and Meals on Wheels are already trying to fill the food vacuum in the area.  

Branham said Meals on Wheels delivers 60 meals in Rockbridge County every day, five days a week.  

John Higgins, vice chairman of the board of supervisors, said many baby boomers struggle to cover expenses for food, medicine and utilities—and save for retirement.   

“A lot of them still live in poverty and that’s not going to change,” he said. “They don’t have the ability to save. They’re just trying to survive.” 

Branham said she’s met residents through the program who have to choose between buying food and buying their medicine.  

“You can really see that it’s detrimental to them and some end up in the hospital,” she said. 

Various organizations tackle the lack of access to food in Rockbridge County, but Branham said there are few resources for transportation and affordable housing.   

The Maury Express can provide public transportation only for people who live within three-fourths of a mile of the bus stop. For seniors who can’t drive, and live further away, coming downtown isn’t an option.   

“How do you get to where you need to be and still be engaged in the community?” Schaff said. “They want to stay active and be mobile.” 

The Maury River Senior Center is located in downtown Buena Vista. (Photo by Hannah Denham)

Branham said there is also a lack of affordable housing for seniors who want to live independently. 

“We really need cottages and homes for our seniors to live in that’s easier to upkeep,” she said. 

The Rockbridge area includes several retirement communities and nursing homes, but not all seniors want to take this step.  

Angelica Hall, 26, of Lexington, said her grandmother was unable to find affordable housing because there is no centralized place to look.    

“My grandmother has been looking for an income-based apartment for several months, and there are only a few places in town – none of which have websites that keep updates on availability or waiting list lengths,” Hall said in an email.  

Higgins said he wants to create a long-term plan to consolidate resources for the local senior population. 

“I think we have to organize individuals that are key players, everything from nursing homes to hospitals to supervisors to the health department,” he said. “I think everybody has to get together and plan on what’s the scenario and try to figure out how to care of it.” 

Higgins said Rockbridge County isn’t the only community that needs to make changes.  

“It’s going to be not only our issue, but a national issue that we’re all going to have to look at,” he said. “We have to take care of our elderly.”