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Some fulfill wish of aging at home

VERONA, N.J. -- Retirement communities may have their perks, but for Beryl O'Connor, it would be tough to match the birthday surprise she got in her own backyard when she turned 80 this year.

She was tending her garden when two little girls from next door -- "my buddies," she calls them -- brought her a strawberry shortcake. It underscored why she wants to stay in the house that she and her husband, who died 18 years ago, bought in the late 1970s. "I couldn't just be around old people -- that's not my lifestyle," she said. "I'd go out of my mind."

Spry and socially active, O'Connor in many respects is the embodiment of "aging in place," growing old in one's own longtime home and remaining engaged in the community rather than moving to a retirement facility.

Surveys show aging in place is the overwhelming preference of Americans over 50. But it takes both good fortune and support services, things O'Connor's hometown of Verona has become increasingly capable of providing.

Making it work

About 10 miles northwest of Newark, Verona has 13,300 residents, roughly 20 percent of whom are over 65, compared with 13 percent statewide.

A transportation network takes older people on shopping trips and to medical appointments, and the town was awarded a $100,000 federal grant for an aging-in-place program called Verona LIVE.

Administered by United Jewish Communities of Metro-West New Jersey, the program strives to educate older people about services to help them address problems and stay active in the community.

Among support services are a home maintenance program and access to a social worker and job counselor. In one program, middle-school girls provided computer training to about 20 older adults.

Plus, O'Connor has company at home -- a granddaughter, 26, lives upstairs and commutes to a job in New York. Around town, O'Connor has a busy schedule of club meetings, group lunches, card games and casino trips.

Social worker Connie Pifher, Verona's health coordinator, said a crucial part of the overall initiative is educating older people to plan ahead realistically. "There are some people who just can do it, especially if they have family support," Pifher said. "And then you run into people who think they can do it, yet really can't."

Idea taking hold

In an October poll, 52 percent of baby boomers said they were unlikely to move in retirement. In a 2005 survey by AARP, 89 percent of people age 50 and older said they would prefer to remain in their home indefinitely.

That yearning, coupled with a widespread dread of going to a nursing home, has led to a nationwide surge of programs aimed at helping people stay in their neighborhoods longer.

A notable initiative is the "village" concept. Members of these nonprofits can access specialized services and social activities. About 65 village organizations have formed in the nation in recent years.

One of the potential problems for people hoping to age in place is that their homes may not be senior-friendly.

Divorced, with two grown sons, Pifher, 64, used to be determined to stay on in her four-bedroom house as a retiree. Now she's planning to move to a co-op or town house, especially after a three-day power outage from a surprise snowstorm. She said an upscale retirement community is off the table for financial reasons.

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