Credit: Eric Dietrich/MTFP

Peggy Seidel’s husband suffers from Alzheimer’s and a cancer for which there is no cure. The couple lived in Helena for most of their lives, and Peggy served as his primary caregiver with little help. 

When the Seidels moved to Missoula in 2021 to be closer to their children, Peggy’s life changed dramatically, thanks to a dementia caregiver support group. 

“It’s an ugly disease,” she said of Alzheimer’s. “When people see my husband, they only see a man who can’t remember. They don’t see the man who he was. In the support group, we are with like-minded people, and it is such a powerful tool to know you have that in common.” 

The monthly support group is hosted through Missoula Aging Services, a nonprofit that provides a variety of services and programs to aging adults, seniors and the people who care for them. 

“We are hoping people see it is a modest request, and the return on investment is really large. I think that is where we are going to end up.”

Lisa Sheppard, CEO of Missoula Aging Services

Caregiver support is just one of the many resources Missoula Aging Services offers. The 40-year-old organization has become the bedrock of eldercare in Missoula and Ravalli counties, providing a slew of services: care management teams, food distribution and nutritional guidance, health care consultations, financial assistance and opportunities for social engagement, among others. 

But as the population of older adults in Missoula and across the country continues to grow and their needs intensify, it becomes harder to maintain high levels of care, according to demographic experts from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

That’s why Missoula County residents will see a measure on their ballot this June asking them to approve new taxes to increase the nonprofit’s funding. 

“It’s expensive financially, emotionally and socially. What kind of community are we going to be if we ignore folks who are aging and ignore folks who are providing that support,” said Juanita Vero, chairwoman of the Missoula Board of County Commissioners. “I don’t think anyone wants to live in that world.” 

Voters will decide whether to repeal the existing $350,000 allocation given to the organization every year and replace it with four mills, in addition to the single mill voters approved in 1998. Doing so would increase the funding from the county by $756,000, according to Lisa Sheppard, CEO of Missoula Aging Services. 

“We are hoping people see it is a modest request, and the return on investment is really large, “ Sheppard said. “I think that is where we are going to end up.” 

THE ‘GRAYING OF AMERICA’  

Montana is sixth in the nation in the number of older adults per capita, and by 2030 more than 20% of the state’s residents will be 65 or older, according to the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C.  

From 2010 to 2019, Missoula County’s population of older adults has increased at four times the rate of the overall population, and 40% of people 75 or older have a disability, according to Missoula Aging Services. 

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At the same time, county funding from taxpayers has remained unchanged since 2007, when voters last approved a flat annual allocation. 

The “graying of America” is happening nationwide, described by the U.S. Census Bureau as a “demographic transformation caused by a rapidly aging population” that is likely to place greater demands for health care, in-home caregiving and assisted-living facilities. 

Missoula Aging Services is already seeing those predictions play out, Sheppard said. 

Meals on Wheels, the meal delivery program that brings hot food to the homes of seniors, has grown by two-thirds in the past two years. COVID-19 accelerated the growth, but Sheppard said the change was inevitable. 

The number of people with Alzheimer’s and dementia in the community continues to grow, according to Missoula Aging Services data, as does the percentage of older adults living on a fixed income.

Consequently, the number of caregivers continues to climb, too. 

“I think it’s critical to the health of the community, and in addition to that it’s also recognizing the support that’s needed for the people who are doing the work,” Vero said of Missoula Aging Services’ work with caregivers and older adults. “I think that gets forgotten — the incredible amount of pressure put on family members and care providers. Missoula Aging Services helps that.” 

THE BALLOT MEASURE 

Missoula Aging Services’ revenue for the 2021 fiscal year was $5.6 million. That number was bolstered by local, state and federal relief funding for the COVID-19 pandemic. That money, though, will soon run out, Sheppard said.

Enter the proposed tax increase, which will be on the ballots mailed to registered voters May 13.

There’s a strong legacy of taxpayer funding for Missoula Aging Services. 

The nonprofit was created by Missoula County commissioners and later became the designated Area Agency on Aging, a byproduct of a 1965 federal law designed to guarantee seniors access to affordable and quality health care. 

“It’s expensive financially, emotionally and socially. What kind of community are we going to be if we ignore folks who are aging and ignore folks who are providing that support. I don’t think anyone wants to live in that world.”

Juanita Vero, chairwoman of the Missoula Board of County Commissioners

In 2007, Missoula County taxpayers approved a $350,000 levy for the organization, though that vote didn’t provide a mechanism to adjust for inflation or population growth. Sheppard estimates that amount of money is worth about one-third less than what it was 15 years ago. 

Under the ballot proposal, property taxes would increase by roughly $5.40 per $100,000 in taxable home value annually, according to the nonprofit’s calculations. 

As a levy, the amount of money generated would also adjust for inflation. 

“Without it, we don’t have a replacement for all of that one-time COVID-19 funding that’s been allowing us to meet this increasing need,” Sheppard said. “If this levy doesn’t pass, we aren’t going to be able to do what we do now.” 

TAXPAYERS 

County funding is by no means the majority of Missoula Aging Services’ annual budget. The nonprofit relies on private donors — for example, it just raised more than $19,000 during the annual Missoula Gives fundraiser — and receives money each year from federal, state and local agencies. Its clients also participate in a pay-what-you-can model for services. 

For taxpayers, the return on their investment is sound, Sheppard said. 

Missoula Aging Services aims to help seniors age independently, meaning they avoid moving into assisted-living facilities or do so much later in life. According to the Genworth Cost of Care Survey in 2020, the average cost of residing in an assisted-living facility in Montana is $3,820 per month. 

If the tax increase is approved by voters, Missoula Aging Services will be able to help more people age in their homes, which is “by far the most affordable option,” Sheppard said 

It would also speak to the character of Missoula. 

“I think it says a lot about the values of this community that we have been able to grow our services along with the needs and our community for a long time,” Sheppard said. “But we are now at a place where we will not be able to meet the need that exists.” 

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Carly Graf

Carly Graf is a freelance reporter based in Missoula. Before making her home in Western Montana, Carly reported from Chicago and the Bay Area as well as from Argentina and Palestine. When not writing, you can find her running on local trails or searching for a hazy IPA in town.