Isle of Wight debuts plan for senior citizens

Published 12:56 pm Friday, April 29, 2022

Isle of Wight’s Planning Commission has received its first look at a proposed addition to the county’s 2020 “Envisioning the Isle” comprehensive plan.

The new section, titled “Share the Isle,” states its purpose is to serve as a decision-making guide for the county to “remain livable for residents of all ages and abilities,” particularly senior citizens.

According to 2020 Census data, just under 20% of Isle of Wight’s 38,606 residents were age 65 or older as of that year. According to the draft “Share the Isle” plan, the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center projects this figure will rise to just under 27% by 2030.

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“It is now Isle of Wight’s turn to grapple with the implications of this demographic shift in the character of our community,” the plan states. “How should we adapt neighborhood design, transportation options, recreational opportunities and even employment to ensure that people can successfully age here?”

County staff began developing the plan in 2021 by surveying 195 residents with an average age of 63. Based on the participants’ responses, the county identified five needs: affordable health care, better transportation, internet access, affordable housing and options for home-delivered meals.

From there, Isle of Wight’s Commission on Aging worked with county staff to focus the draft plan on five areas: “healthy and active lifestyle,” “quality healthcare,” “transportation access,” “housing choices” and “education, employment and engagement.”

According to the draft document, Isle of Wight has an above-average number of adults with “frequent mental distress,” diabetes and obesity, as well as an above-average population served by unsafe drinking water and who lack access to a large grocery store.

The plan further contends Isle of Wight has an “equity” problem, with a higher-than-average racial disparity in educational attainment and poverty rates.

As a remedy, the plan proposes Isle of Wight encourage mixed-use zoning, in which commercial and residential units are combined on a single parcel, often within walking distance. It further proposes the county adopt an “affordable dwelling unit ordinance,” to “increase the supply of more affordable housing for persons of all ages by offering incentives to private developers.”

According to data provided by Isle of Wight’s Department of Economic Development, county residents age 65 and up earned an average annual income of $45,678 in 2021, though the “Share the Isle” plan reports 61% of survey participants reported household incomes greater than $50,000.

According to the plan, roughly 5.3% of the county’s population age 65 and older fell below the census-defined poverty threshold as of 2019. As of that year, the average new single-family home cost $328,484 – necessitating a minimum household income of $59,486 to make mortgage payments at an interest rate of 3.02%. According to Smithfield-based Realtor Jay Hassell, the average home price in Isle of Wight County and the city of Suffolk for detached single-family homes has since surged to between $360,000 and $405,000, with 2022 interest rates having risen above 5%.

Isle of Wight County is a member of the Franklin-headquartered Senior Services of Southeastern Virginia, which operates the I-Ride transit system for senior citizens. But there’s only three fixed routes through the county presently, none in Carrollton where the majority of the county’s senior and general population resides, the plan states.

One very consistent theme expressed by both community members, service providers, and the Commission on Aging is the need for a wide range of home support and care services to fulfill a variety of needs from helping with shopping and/or providing meals to home visits from doctors and other service providers,” the draft plan states. “Barriers experienced in getting home care services include a general lack of such services, lack of funding, poor organization of services, restrictive eligibility criteria, and high turnover in home care staff.”

As a solution, the plan proposes the county increase its funding of the I-Ride program, offer county-owned surplus vehicles to volunteer networks that provide free transportation to seniors, incorporate smart mobility concepts, such as broadband, into future road improvements to capitalize on driverless vehicles, and continue to expand Isle of Wight’s bicycle and pedestrian trail, which currently spans from Nike Park to Smithfield.

The plan further recommends the county establish a full-time “livable community coordinator” position to “serve as a central point of contact for information on available senior health care and community support services.”

This is great, but where are the resources going to come from?” asked Planning Commission Vice Chairman Bobby Bowser at the advisory body’s April 26 meeting.

Commissioner Cynthia Taylor then said she’d like to see more assisted living options in the county.

The plan will next head to the county’s Board of Supervisors in May for their input. Then, a final draft that incorporates the two bodies’ recommended revisions will be put to a public hearing.