April 2, 2021

The Board of County Commissioners approved the 2021-25 Area Plan on Thursday, April 1, shaping the next four years of services for older adults in the area. The plan is informed by extensive community engagement process involving almost 1,400 residents on the unique needs of the growing older adult population in Multnomah County. 

Multnomah County is the Area Agency on Aging under the Older Americans Act. That means the County is responsible for identifying the needs of older adults in Multnomah County and creating a four-year plan known as the Area Plan. The plan influences the strategy the County and its partners use to meet the needs of seniors. 

Older adults are among the fastest-growing populations in Multnomah County. The 60-plus population has grown to at least 151,827 residents, and continues to grow by about 10,000 people every year. At least 18 percent of Multnomah County residents are 60 or older. And 20 percent of Multnomah County’s older adult population identify as people of color. Four percent are linguistically isolated, meaning that no one in their household over the age of 14 speaks English.

“As we look to the future in this plan and beyond, population data and a growing number of older adults will o significantly impact the way we plan our service model, in the way that we contract for services, in everything that we do,” said Erin Grahek, the Community Services Manager for Aging, Disability & Veterans Services Division. 

The State of Oregon determines the focus areas and format of the plan. Each Area Agency on Aging must develop a plan that reflects the needs of their region. The plan will be in effect from July 1, 2021 through June 30, 2025. 

Survey aims to capture full diversity of the community

This year’s Area Plan is different from past ones in a number of ways. Unlike previous ones, the 2021-25 plan emphasizes systemic oppression and inequities experienced by historically marginalized communities. It prioritizes culturally-specific services and was greatly influenced by Black, Indigenous, People of Color and LGBTQ+ communities.

“Even though some of the numbers of specific communities are small, we’re still able to analyze those needs and to include their voice in the Area Plan,” said Robyn Johnson, planning  and development specialist For Aging Disability And Veterans Services.  “It really holds us accountable to continue to reach out to the community and amplify those voices.”

In partnership with 11 community-based organizations, Multnomah County surveyed 1,392 residents about the focus areas. Among the respondents, 33 percent were people with disabilities; 19 percent had an addiction or mental health diagnosis; 10 percent had military service; and 16 percent identified as Black, Native American/Alaska Native; or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. 

Community listening sessions included  interpreters for nine languages, along with American Sign Language interpreters and closed captioning. Commissioner Susheela Jayapal observed that language access is critical, and the pandemic has underscored that reality.

“We saw with COVID, that when there’s a lag, you end up exacerbating whatever inequity exists,” Commissioner Jayapal said. “i appreciate that thinking and intentionality around language access.”

Thirty-five respondents identified as transgender, non-binary or two-spirit. Transgender elders identified several unique barriers, including employment help, housing and healthcare. These respondents also expressed challenges navigating services due to discrimination. 

“I especially loved the focus on the trans, binary and two spirit community in this report,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said. “I think it’s very appropriate, but also really needed to look at the special needs within each community. We’re doing that in terms of race and ethnicity, but also in terms of identity.”

Survey participants rank needs by importance

Respondents were asked to rank a number of needs in importance on a scale of one to nine, with one being the most important. The top five needs in order were: housing, income, healthcare, food and transportation. 

Forty-two percent of respondents said they had missed a medical appointment due to transportation issues. Fifty-nine percent have been unable to participate in an activity because of transportation.

The survey also revealed how the pandemic has affected older adults and their caregivers. Among the caregivers surveyed, 29 percent said they had experienced a net increase in hours worked to the COVID-19. “This is something we’ve heard from the community and that was reinforced in the survey,” Johnson said.

Of all the findings, one of the most striking is the amount of older adults experiencing homelessness. About 20 percent of all the houseless people in Multnomah County are age 55 and older, Johnson said.  And 94 percent of residents reached in the biannual Point in Time Count identify as having a disability.

“It’s not surprising, but it’s a shock to see it,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran, the Board liaison to the Aging Services Advisory and Disability Services Advisory Boards. “This is just so tremendous and has such implications for the work that we have done, are doing and will be continuing to do, especially in light of the support of the Housing Services measure.”

The 2021-25 Area Plan is only the first part of a four-year process. In year two, the plan will dive deeper into housing, income, physical and behavioral healthcare, homelessness, and services for veterans, LGBTQ+, and people who were previously incarcerated. 

The team also aims to incorporate lessons learned from this year’s survey. Technology allowed surveyors to reach more participants than planned. At the same time, as the pandemic has shown, technology and language access disparities continue to exist. The County aims to bridge that gap moving forward. 

“We really aim to begin the next phase of engagement with the communities reflected in these key focus areas by summer and early fall as we start to move into being able to engage with folks in person in ways that are safe and build and foster connection,” Grahek said. “We will dig in deeply to this additional work.”