Helping Door County Age in Place

Last month, Do Good Door County (DGDC) led a series of forums during which residents of seven communities along the peninsula could offer feedback and share their concerns about aging.

At the forum in Baileys Harbor, the crowd of about 30 people initially chatted within their own clusters, but once the program began, many found that strangers across the room had the same hopes, fears and experiences when it came to aging.

The majority of participants at the Baileys Harbor forum wanted to stay in place as they aged, which reflected a countywide trend: 86% of Door County residents want to stay in their homes as they age, according to a recent survey by DGDC.

But doing so requires forethought, according to DGDC president Cynthia Germain, and some who want to age in place don’t have a plan, the survey revealed. Thirty-eight percent of Door County residents who live by themselves aren’t sure what they would do if they could no longer live alone as they age, and 5% haven’t thought about it at all. 

DGDC partnered with St. Norbert College to create the survey with the aim of understanding and assessing the county’s aging concerns. The survey did provide insight, but Germain knew she needed more than just numbers.

“We really want to look at not only the data as a whole, but also the data and actions that we can take with the data to address the needs of particular communities,” she said.

After the preliminary survey results came back in early November, DGDC led forums in Sturgeon Bay, Sister Bay, Forestville, Baileys Harbor, Washington Island, Sevastopol and Egg Harbor, where residents discussed their aging concerns. Sister Bay drew the largest crowd, Forestville the smallest.

Younger attendees included caretakers or children of aging residents, but the majority of attendees were elderly. Their lively conversation revealed that many had already identified ways in which Door County could better meet their needs.

How important and how urgent 11 Door County communities rated the eight domains of an age-friendly community. The upper-left corner marked the most important and urgent of the domains, and the lower-right corner marked the least important and urgent. Photo courtesy of Do Good Door County.

Eight Domains for Age-friendly Communities

To provide structure to their conversations, Germain drew inspiration from the age-friendly initiative that the World Health Organization has developed. Its goal is to create age-friendly communities, which DGDC’s website defines as “a place that adapts its services and physical structures in order to improve the quality of life of residents as they age.”

The initiative prescribes eight domains for an age-friendly community: outdoor spaces and buildings, transportation, housing, respect and social inclusion, social participation, civic participation and employment opportunities, communication and information, and community support and health services.

Participants in the forums were asked to rank each domain in terms of its importance and its urgency, visualizing their priorities on a graph. Although each location had its own individual concerns and priorities, the number-one concern across the board was communication, according to Germain. 

“What we heard over and over again was that people didn’t have a central place to get information that they needed,” Germain said.

In addition, residents said they wanted to be able to gather information through different avenues – websites, printed materials, a hotline –  depending on their technological comfort. 

Following communication as the biggest concern, another issue that came up was the importance of affordable housing to attract and retain hospital and assisted-living workers. 

Participants in smaller communities such as Sister Bay also pointed out accessibility issues in downtown areas that offer only street parking. Others brought up gaps in health service, including long waits for dental care and limited mental-health resources. In Northern Door, a lack of emergency health services was noted. 

Most communities regarded the social participation and the civic participation and employment opportunities domains as the least important, pointing out that Door County has ample volunteer and employment opportunities.

Participants also brought up resource needs that fell outside of the eight domains, such as pet care and spiritual opportunities.

Moving Forward

After the forums, Germain feels that DGDC has a better handle on what Door County’s aging population needs, but its next step is much larger. She said the organization must consider implementing important programs “without re-creating the wheel,” instead using preexisting programs in other areas as guides.

It’s still too early to say what those programs will look like in Door County, but according to Germain, “we now have a really good compass for the kind of projects we’ll look at and what kind of funding we’ll need.”

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