Over the decades, Edward Ford took care of his in-laws and then-wife Mary Ann, allowing them to stay at home as they became frail.

The 80-year-old retired post office worker and Vietnam vet widened doors of the East Tupelo home to accommodate wheelchairs. He bought long-term care insurance while he was still working.

“I took it out years ago, thinking of my wife,” Ford said.

Now, those thoughtful steps are helping the widower stay in his own home as he ages. The former Marine, whose mobility is limited by back problems, gets help from Right at Home. The service provides caregivers who assist Ford with cooking meals, housekeeping, driving him around town or to the VA Hospital in Memphis and personal care. The cost is covered by the long-term care insurance.

“Anything I need, they do,” Ford said. “They’re good to me.”

His daughter and her family live close by, but for now, Ford says he has a good balance that helps him maintain a good quality of life.

“I’m going to stay by myself as long as I can,” Ford said. “I just like being home.”

Contrary to perception, most senior citizens are not living in assisted living centers or nursing homes.

“The vast majority, even those over 85, still live at home,” said Laura Pannell, a member of the Itawamba Community College faculty and a credentialed gerontologist. “They want to be there.”

The wave of Baby Boomers joining the ranks of the retired have been remaking the way America ages, and as a generation, they are determined to age at home.

“These are the children of the 50s and 60s,” Pannell said. “They never viewed themselves as old. They anticipate they will be active and engaged for the duration.”

There’s good reason to support older adults in retaining independence as they age, Pannell said.

“If it is at all possible, staying home with the right support benefits them financially, emotionally and physically,” Pannell said.

Most seniors don’t need skilled nursing care, but as age and declining health chip into the ability to function independently, many will need assistance especially when they need to step back from driving. Services that connect seniors to help with transportation, meals and managing needs can help them maintain their health longer.

There are a range of resources from government agencies, non-profit organizations, civic groups and churches in Tupelo and Northeast Mississippi. The key is for older adults and their families to be proactive and start exploring the options as needs start to emerge, said Cleveland Joseph, director for the Three Rivers Area Agency on Aging.

“If they ask for help, they usually can stay in their home longer,” Joseph said.

Although eligibility for Medicaid, which shoulders much of the cost for seniors in nursing homes, is based on income, many other community resources are based on seniors’ needs.

The Mississippi Access to Care Center housed at Three Rivers Area Agency on Aging can provide services and support and is available to anyone regardless of income. The trained counselors can help provide information and referrals to long-term care services and supports, as well as screen for Medicaid waivers.

The Area Agency on Aging helps people 60 and older. For those with limited mobility, it provides homemaker services, Meals on Wheels and respite care for caregivers. Through the State Health Insurance Program, trained counselors can also help seniors with signing up for Medicare programs.

“If we don’t provide it, we will try to connect you with other resources,” Joseph said.

The agency tries to leverage community resources. Funding is tight, and potentially vulnerable to federal and state budget cuts.

The homemaker services are free, but there is a waiting list, Joseph said.

Lee County Meals on Wheels provides 115 hot meals, five days a week to older adults who can’t get out to buy groceries or cook safely. It really is more than a meal.

“It’s peace of mind for families,” said Lynne Johnson, Meals on Wheels director. “They know that someone is checking on them five days a week.”

For folks like Jettie and David Norris of Tupelo, Meals on Wheels is an important support. The couple both have vision problems and can’t drive. The daily meals help leverage the assistance from their son and daughter-in-law, who live in Guntown.

“It keeps us at home,” said David Norris, 82.

The Lee County Meals on Wheels program, which operates under the umbrella of Mississippi Methodist Senior Services, focuses on people who are 62 and older. Johnson coordinates with other local Meals on Wheels programs operated by the Salvation Army program and Three Rivers Area Agency on Aging to help others.

It takes $140,000 annually through United Way grants and donations and 150 volunteers who typically run routes once a month, Johnson said. She would love to serve more people; the waiting list currently stands at 30.

“It’s such a growing need,” Johnson said. “People are living a lot longer.”

The Shepherd Center of Greater Tupelo is all about older adults helping older adults. The group holds monthly meetings at local churches designed to be educational and entertaining, and volunteers offer helping hands to other seniors.

“Our main focus is transportation,” said office coordinator Melissa Hunt.

Medical and rehab appointments have priority for the volunteer drivers, but they also work with clients who need help getting to the St. Luke Food Pantry, Hunt said.

Right now, Shepherd Center is available in Tupelo and Saltillo, but they could cover more areas with more volunteer drivers, Hunt said.

“We would love to do more,” Hunt said. “We would love to expand.”

The service is limited to who can get in and out of the car on their own because the volunteer drivers don’t have the training required to safely transfer those dependent on wheelchairs.

“The majority of our clients are in their 70s and 80s,” Hunt said. “Some of our drivers are in their 80s.”

Clients and drivers usually end up chatting and swapping life stories. They become an extended community.

“It helps people stay in their own homes,” Hunt said. “If it weren’t for us, I’m not sure how they would do it.”

Some services have been around for years. As many metro grocery stores are piloting home delivery, Todd’s Big Star in Tupelo never stopped delivering groceries to customers that can’t get out, said owner Clay Knight.

Right now, the grocery store runs deliveries on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. There’s no additional charge for the service, but most customers tip the driver, Knight said.

Mississippi Methodist Senior Services, which operates Traceway Retirement Community, is launching The NextAge service, aiming to get more resources to seniors.

Working with consultants, Methodist Senior Services asked older adults what they wanted and needed, said Michelle Daniel, Mississippi Methodist Senior Services vice president for philanthropy and strategic implementation. They found that transportation, health care navigation, home maintenance and getting daily supplies were the biggest concerns.

This summer, Methodist Senior Services launched the NextAge website with connections to local resources, information and an online store to allow people to shop for adaptive equipment. The organization is working on rolling out more services through the end of the year.

Initially, they are focusing efforts in Lee County with plans to expand to the areas around the 10 other campuses they have in Mississippi, where the organization has local connections.

“NextAge is designed to be a lever for independence,” Daniel said. “We hope this alleviates stress and strain on caregivers.”

Evolving caregivers

In addition to home health services, which have to be prescribed by a physician, homemaker and personal care services are evolving to meet the needs, especially for seniors who want to stay in their own homes.

“Nutrition is a huge need,” said Karla Strickland, owner of the Saltillo Right at Home franchise, which provides personal care based on individual needs. “Often older adults lose interest in cooking.”

Many of her clients need help with cooking, laundry, meal prep and transportation. They average 25 hours a week. Some of her clients need folks every day. Others need help a couple times a week for running errands.

Be proactive

Aging well isn’t just a happy accident of genetics and a lifetime of healthy choices.

Seniors need to be proactive in maintaining their bodies, minds and homes with an eye on the future.

“So many people look forward to retirement,” Pannell said, but they don’t make plans for maintaining their social interaction or the sense of purpose that work provides.”

Subtle changes in vision or hearing may not be obvious, but can often be addressed if caught early. After 50, people should have their vision and hearing screened annually, Pannell said.

It is important to manage chronic conditions and prepare for the changes that come with aging. People should have frank conversations with health care providers about what to expect.

Fall prevention is the top of the list for protecting independence. Falls often start a downward spiral for older adults. Removing rugs and adding bannisters and grab bars can prevent big problems. Pannell recommends automatic night lights and power failure lights devices, so that older adults don’t have to navigate dark rooms.

In addition your physician, an occupational therapist can be an MVP in helping seniors overcome the challenges of aging bodies, Pannell said. They have a range of assistive devices that can work around aging hands, eyes and balance. NMMC occupational therapy services includes a driving assessment.

Older adults can become vulnerable to fraud and exploitation. It is important for older adults and their families to carefully vet caregivers and service providers.

Loneliness is a huge quality of life issue for older adults, especially those who can’t drive independently. Families can help by looking for for ways to enrich the quality of life by focusing on what the individual enjoys and thinking beyond safety, Pannell said.

Well-meaning adult children and friends need to tread carefully when assisting older adults.

“Don’t jump to conclusions,” Pannell said. “You need to respect their wishes and judgment.”

Joseph has seen older adults who could benefit from services through Three Rivers refuse them because well-meaning family and neighbors arranged for an assessment, but didn’t get the older adult on board.

“When it’s their idea, they usually say yes,” Joseph said.

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