Southwest Wake News

Report: Cary serves seniors well, but may lack housing under population boom

Helen Merentino, 81, leads a class in line dancing at the Cary Senior Center. Merentino’s classes draw more participants than bingo or badminton, table tennis or tai chi.
Helen Merentino, 81, leads a class in line dancing at the Cary Senior Center. Merentino’s classes draw more participants than bingo or badminton, table tennis or tai chi. 2014 N&O FILE PHOTO

Cary is a great place for seniors to live, a recent study shows, but it may lack the necessary housing options to accommodate a growing senior population.

The Aging Issues Task Force, a group of Cary officials and residents appointed by the town, recently completed a five-month-long investigation into how well Cary serves residents who are 65 and older. The report, conducted by seven town residents, is the first of its kind in Cary.

Cary received near-perfect scores for being safe and having easy access to health care, supportive services for seniors and a wide variety of retail shops. The Cary Senior Center is also a great place to learn, exercise or socialize, said Marjorie Rodman, 67, who moved to Cary from out of state three years ago.

“We’ve been so impressed with the quantity and the quality of the offerings here,” Rodman said while taking a painting class at the center. “It’s such a stimulating community.”

But the study found that, in a few years, Cary may not have enough affordable places for seniors to live. The town has 13 housing centers for centers and three more under construction.

Seniors currently make up about 9 percent of Cary’s population, but the town expects that number to rise to 18 percent by 2030.

“Long waiting lists for assisted-living facilities and access to affordable housing are particular challenges for a significant number of Cary seniors,” task force members wrote in their report.

“Providing an appropriate mix of these housing options is a challenge that the Town of Cary is currently facing. A number of demographic factors indicate that the current housing challenge will become even more acute in the next 10 years.”

The group gave Cary an overall score of 2.5 on the tool kit’s 3-point grading scale.

The task force worked under guidelines provided by Triangle J, a council made up of government officials from 37 municipalities. The group was instructed to examine everything from how fast the town grants permits for wheelchair ramps to how many physicians’ offices are located in senior-dense areas.

Cary now has 12,000 seniors and a total population of more than 145,000. By 2030, the town expects to have 30,600 seniors and a total population of 170,000.

“Five thousand of us turn 65 every year in Cary. That’s a lot,” Mayor Harold Weinbrecht said Jan. 15 up after a presentation on the report.

“We’re getting old very fast ... so this is very important to our town,” he said.

Cary staff is expected to review the report and develop its own recommendations. The group was tasked with identifying issues but not necessarily creating ways to address them.

Nonetheless, the group suggested the town change its development codes to allow for more affordable senior housing throughout town. High land prices limit the federal government’s ability to build affordable housing, said Russ Overton, Cary’s assistant town manager.

Cary councilman Ed Yerha, who helped run the task force, said he was in favor of encouraging more housing options but isn’t sure how the town should go about it. He said he first wants to know how Cary measures up to towns of comparable size with senior housing.

“That’s something staff will hopefully look into,” he said.

In the report, the group also suggested that Cary create “an institutional framework so that policy keeps up with the challenges associated with (the) older population.”

Cary staff calculates the fiscal impact of every proposal and recommendation that goes before the Town Council. Yerha wondered if the town could also research how each proposal would affect seniors and include that information on each report as well.

“We’re ahead of the curve now, maybe,” he said. “But as soon as we start thinking that we’re doing great and stop doing things intentionally, we’re gonna fall behind.”

Communication is key

The task force also urged Cary to improve its communication efforts with the elderly.

Cary has many resources for the elderly, which it posts on its website and in two print publications: the “Directory of Resources for Older and Disabled Adults in Wake County” and “Creating Active Retirement Years.”

But, Yerha noted, some of the seniors on the task force were suprised by what the town offers.

For instance, the group reported that C-Tran, the town’s bus service, should expand its routes in the next few years. However, some in the group didn’t know that C-Tran already offers a door-to-door service that can take seniors almost anywhere they want to go in the Triangle.

“If more seniors knew about the contents of this book, they would be better served,” Yerha said, referring to “Creating Active Retirement Years,” which is published by Cary’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department.

The task force is divided on whether the town needs to do a better job of leading seniors to its resources or if local seniors need to do a better job of seeking out information.

The town should at least expand its target audience when releasing information that’s useful to seniors, Jimmie Butts, chairwoman of the task force, told the Cary council at its meeting on Jan. 15.

“It is imperative to reach not just the individual seniors and disabled, but the family members, friends, all categories of caregivers and the general public,” she said.