The father-daughter duo of Roger Gutwillig and Diane Pearlman tapped into their deep connections in the local film industry to create the video highlighting the work.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — After a pedestrian was hit by a vehicle and later died, the senior citizens of Great Barrington were scared to walk.
Emergency management from Fairview Hospital developed a program to purchase reflective vests to hand out to those walking, to help make them feel a little safer. Police were supplied with vests to keep in their cruisers so they can offer them to pedestrians. The vests also are available at councils on aging and at events.
It is one effort to help the aging population be a little safer, a little healthier by continuing to walk, and a little more engaged with the community.
It was one of three efforts highlighted in a 12-minute film on the work of Age-Friendly Berkshires. The film, done by father-daughter duo Roger Gutwillig and Diane Pearlman, was premiered on Monday at Berkshire Community College during the organization's annual meeting. The organization took time to reflect on its mission and its accomplishments in the last few years as it works on a number of fronts to make it easier for people to live here as they get older.
"We are in the implementation phase for Age-Friendly Berkshires, which means the action plan that took us several years to produce is now actually being implemented across the county," Age-Friendly Berkshires Coordinator Peg McDonough said. "This year has been, to say the least, a bit of a blur, so busy that we aren't quite sure day-to-day how we are going to keep up with it."
In Dalton, the organization was behind an effort to create an exercise park at the Council on Aging. The park features equipment seniors can use to not only get some exercises but to also socialize. It's partnered with the American Red Cross to install new smoke detectors in the homes of seniors. It held the first job fair for those over the age of 50. And it's worked with cities and towns to improve infrastructure.
Age-Friendly Berkshires has tackled many projects from the northern end to the southern end of the county. It's a "movement" building off an action plan completed in late 2017.
"The population of Berkshire County is aging rapidly and, in fact, we are the second oldest county in the commonwealth after Cape Cod. We are a retirement destination and cultural mecca. People come, they visit, they love it, they stay," McDonough said.
It was a year or so earlier that Bobbi Orsi, of Home Instead Senior Care, was looking at the demographic numbers and realized the county isn't equipped to handle the number of people over the age of 50 that continues to grow. She began Age-Friendly Berkshires as a way to supply services the county lacks.
"She realized that our systems, our services, our programs, our infrastructure, is not going to be able to support fully the number of older adults that we have in this county," McDonough said. "So she gathered a few of her friends, like-minded individuals, and said we really have to respond in a coordinated fashion. And here we are today."
The action plan was adopted in November of 2017 and the work of implementing the various strategies has been ongoing. With partners throughout the Berkshires, the organization has made in-roads on its mission of changing the perspective of aging and becoming more accommodating.
The group received funding from AARP and Tufts Health Plan Foundation. It's conversations with municipalities that's resulted in nine resolutions so far from officials designating their city or town as being age-friendly.
Representatives have met with the planning boards to develop zoning that encourages new housing options. Such an example is a push to allow apartments to be built on properties with single-family homes that would allow for an older person to be able to live close to a caregiver -- and much of the zoning in the county did not allow for such.
"We have been trying to work very specifically with planning boards to look at their zoning and this year we're going to create a kind of more formal package than we had originally," McDonough said.
He said the group has also helped with municipal vulnerability preparedness plans to improve emergency responders' ability to react during an emergency.
"It deliberately looks at how emergency responders get to the people in town if there is a weather emergency and communicates with them effectively," McDonough said.
Age-Friendly Berkshires has worked on Complete Street plans to make accommodations for all forms of travel to keep the elderly active and still able to walk to get what they need and advocated for town buildings to become more ADA compliant and helped create plans to do so.
"We have a lot of historic buildings and it has to be done sensitively and it is expensive. We are working hard with people to show them that it is doable," McDonough said.
There are conversations with the Regional Coordinating Council on Transportation to develop a new volunteer driver program for both medical and non-medical needs, giving seniors another way to get around town and stay active and involved. The job fair for people over the age of 50 was well attended and the organization is already planning the next one. The group is also working with a network of long-term care providers to address issues in those facilities.
The organization launched a driver safety program, bringing in instructors from the AARP, and will be holding a workshop for seniors on driving decisions, weighing when is the right time for a senior to give up driving.
Meanwhile, the effort has spurred spin-offs. The first "village" is being created for older adults. It will be a membership organization for seniors living in their own homes. It would provide a menu of either volunteer or for-hire services that will help them live in their homes longer. A similar model is being developed in North County.
Soon the organization will be launching an age-friendly business designation, helping businesses learn to work better with the older population and giving them marketing material to boast that they are age-friendly. It is also creating a database of volunteer opportunities seniors can browse to keep active.
"We want to support people staying active and engaged in their community and we think this is a good way to do it," McDonough said.
AARP State Director Michael Festa said the wide-ranging activities have been unseen elsewhere and are making waves across the country.
"What the Berkshires as a county represents is a very different approach than most of the space and most of the age-friendly effort has been around. It's been around a city, one community, one town. I was in Holland and it's not a big town, 2,500 people, but they're doing it on their own ... but here you are recognizing from the get-go that this has to be an acknowledged effort to look at the cities -- North Adams and Pittsfield -- larger suburban areas, and of course the smaller towns," Festa said.
AARP Regional Director Michael Festa said the Berkshires' efforts aren't just being noticed statewide but nationally as well.
"Collectively, the impact is extraordinary."
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, who is vice chair of the state's Elder Affairs Committee, highlighted the collaboration among partners in the county as well. That is what Berkshire County does well, she said.
"We need to make this a better place for all of us to live, no matter what age you are. I'm really proud of the work our community has done to work toward this age-friendly community, to work toward being a dementia-friendly community," Farley-Bouvier said.
There have been plenty of things in the works even in 2017 when the action plan was approved. Gutwillig told McDonough that the organization should do a video highlighting the work. McDonough liked the idea, but it wasn't a priority. He later mentioned it again and she still wasn't there. And then she attended a national AARP conference in Texas and her mind changed.
"I was very impressed by all of the videos that were being shown at this conference from all across the country. And some of those videos so affecting and so emotionally attaching that all of a sudden a light bulb went off in my head and I said, we have to make a video," McDonough said.
Pearlman is the executive director of the Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative. She put it all together with award-winning cinematographers who took the project on as a way to give back. AARP helped sponsor it. The video goes throughout the county featuring those who are doing the work. Festa believes it will inspire others in other parts of the country to take on such projects.
Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs Elizabeth Chen served as the keynote speaker.
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