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Emily Atkinson is Henrico County's Advocate for the Aging
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Emily Atkinson is Henrico County's Advocate for the Aging

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When older residents in Henrico County find themselves without a car or driver’s license anymore, many pick up the phone and call Emily Atkinson.

Atkinson, 24, the county’s newest Advocate for the Aging, works every day to be a voice for older residents. Her phone rings constantly, with residents on the other end seeking her help.

Many of the calls deal with transportation issues.

“When you lose your transportation, you lose access to really the outside world in general,” said Atkinson, who joined the county in July.

Simple errands, like going to the grocery store or the pharmacy, immediately become complicated.

To help ease the headache, Atkinson discusses public transportation options, pharmacy and grocery delivery options, and private transportation options. But for those who are financially strapped, the latter options are not always in the cards.

Atkinson spends her time piecemealing a lot of options so her residents can still live their lives despite no longer being behind the wheel. But transportation woes are only one piece of her many job duties.

When Atkinson receives a phone call on her hotline, she immediately determines what is the core issue the resident is facing and what resources, such as personal care agencies or financial agencies, she can use to help. The issue at hand sometimes requires a home visit.

In situations where Atkinson realizes an older resident isn’t being listened to or is being taken advantage of, she acts as a mediator.

“Unfortunately, because of the stereotypes that exist about older adults, a lot of times people do try to attempt to take advantage of them,” Atkinson said.

Roughly 69,300 people over the age of 60 live in Henrico, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2019 estimates.

Jelisa Turner, the inaugural Advocate for the Aging from 2015 to 2018, said the county saw a need for the position as Richmond-area localities recognized an age wave of older residents who are expected to live longer and have healthier lives.

Formally known as the Age Wave, now the Longevity Project for a greater Richmond, those involved are working to make the greater Richmond region “a great place for all people to grow old.”

Spearheaded by the Department of Gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University and Senior Connections, The Capital Area Agency on Aging, the task at hand is to embrace elderhood, value all residents, be inclusive to all, and provide a quality of life now and in the future.

Henrico’s advocate position is important, Turner said, “because our residents are living longer and we want to make sure Henrico County is an age-friendly community.”

Turner, who is now the county’s community assistance resources and education coordinator, said Henrico is planning for the future through its advocacy program, by providing resources and education for older residents.

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Atkinson, who first explored becoming an elementary school teacher, decided when entering graduate school at Virginia Tech that she wanted to study health aging to learn how to help older adults who live out in the community, stay in the community.

“Something I try to stress to people is older adults are not a broad stroke of ‘This is what an older adult looks like.’ There’s chronological age, but also physical age, emotional age and mental age that can’t necessarily be quantified the same way as chronological age,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson may work with an adult in their 70s who is facing chronic health conditions, therefore needing great assistance, but she also can work with someone in their 90s who is mentally sharp and doesn’t need a great deal of help.

“I try to really individualize the care that I provide and the resources that I provide because it’s so important to realize that one service that might work for one person might not necessarily work for somebody else,” she said.

While working individually with older adults and sometimes their caregivers, Atkinson also plans community events, at least once a month.

In September, it was Senior Safety Day where residents learned about medication, transportation and physical safety.

In October, residents attended a fall prevention event where they received vision, hearing, blood pressure screenings, and gait and balance checks. They also sat down with occupational therapists to learn about in-home strategies for fall prevention.

November’s event focused on Medicare, while December’s event is a holiday party.

Atkinson also revamped the Henrico Ambassadors Program for Seniors, by establishing monthly meetings instead of a single annual event.

The monthly meetings, which rotate among the five area libraries, are a chance for residents to learn about an educational topic, resource or organization and provide feedback.

The residents also give updates on what’s happening in their communities, before taking all of the information back to their church group, women’s club or neighborhood.

EngAGEing Conversations, an outreach program first established at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic to connect with Henrico’s older residents through phone calls, still exists but at this time new participants are accepted only if an existing participant has dropped out.

However, Atkinson can connect interested residents with other telephone outreach programs.

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Every Monday, Bob Fowler spends about an hour on the phone calling five older residents in Henrico.

A retired sales and customer service employee, Fowler, 66, not only wanted to give back but also holds concern for older people after taking care of his parents and in-laws, some of whom fell significantly ill.

Fowler talks to each of the five women individually for about 10 minutes a week. He asks them how they are feeling, what’s going on in their lives and if necessary reports back to Atkinson if a resident needs her assistance.

On a recent Monday, Fowler found himself talking to one resident about the personal habits of her grandmother and mother around the home.

“It’s a good connection,” said Fowler, adding that he enjoys receiving phone calls from his own grandchildren. “I like hearing what they have to say.”

Having called each of the five women for roughly two years, Fowler feels close to all of them, despite never meeting.

Atkinson found herself ultimately wanting to work with older adults because she “loves talking to them and having quality conversations because you get so much out of it.

“Obviously, they get something out of the relationship with me, but I get just as much back,” she said. “I leave my job [every day] feeling like my heart is full.”

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