Longevity Project Part 1: Senior citizen wave coming to Garfield County
August 28, 2018
Editor's note: This is the first installment in a four-part Longevity Project series by the Glenwood Springs Post Independent looking at the keys to living a long life and issues around aging in Garfield County. Additional parts will appear each Wednesday through Sept. 19.
Rosemarie Romeo was rushed to Glenwood Medical Center in December 2015, after accidentally misusing her anxiety medication.
She says she scheduled a follow-up visit and a geriatric psychiatrist gave her a list with names for local mental-health care providers.
"Many of the counselors weren't even in practice anymore or their numbers didn't work," Romeo said.
"Not one person mentioned Mind Springs," a major mental health organization that comprises 12 locations across the Western Slope.
Romeo, a 77-year-old Medicare and Medicaid recipient, says she continued to struggle with finding a mental health counselor as well as other affordable services in the area.
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The former author and Glenwood Springs resident is now working with local government agencies to create a brochure for other seniors who are aging in Western Colorado. She says the booklet will include information on "who to call [and] when."
"When you're on Medicare and you're low income, there are services available, right down to toenail clinics, because the elderly can't reach their feet," she said.
"If my doctor had known to tell me about these programs and these services, I would have been better off," she said.
Romeo is one of the growing number of senior citizens in Garfield County, a segment of the population that's expected to grow exponentially in the coming decade or so as the baby boomer generation ages into its late 60s, 70s and 80s.
On the one hand, Western Colorado's active lifestyle and healthy environment attracts and retains those entering their senior years, offering numerous outlets to get outdoors, exercise and socialize.
Various senior fitness organizations in Garfield County range from Glenwood Springs' highly-active couples and singles of the "100 Club," to the more laid back hiking ladies of the "Wednesday Wanderers."
Eighteen years ago, Rochester, N.Y. transplants Ray and Shirley Limoges arrived in Glenwood Springs for a family visit and a little skiing.
"My brother said there's something called the '100 Club' here," Ray Limoges said of the summer hiking and winter skiing group that caters to couples whose ages add up to 100 or more, as well as older singles who've maybe lost their spouse or are no longer married.
"So on Monday, I went to the chamber and asked the lady if she knew anything about it," Limoges said. "She said, 'I know they ski up on Sunlight on Wednesdays.' So, Shirley and I went up on that very Wednesday. And we still do that – after almost 25 years."
Study after study shows active seniors live longer, and the counties of Western Colorado have among the highest life expectancy rates in the United States.
But an aging population also brings many challenges for rural mountain communities when it comes to catering to health-care needs, creating and providing access to senior services, coming up with affordable housing options for seniors, and keeping up with the demand for in-home caregivers and nursing care when the time comes.
Then there's the cost-of-living reality in Garfield County and neighboring mountain areas that can make it hard to make ends meet on a fixed income, requiring many seniors to work into their 70s or move to places where it's more affordable to stay retired.
Colorado's senior population is expected to grow at an unprecedented rate by 2030, according to state officials.
Aging experts and government officials nationwide are experiencing a similar trend with scores of baby boomers turning 65 on a daily basis.
Several organizations in Colorado and locally are working to prepare for this seismic shift, which officials say will ultimately affect the state's economy, health-care system, transportation systems, and the housing market.
Organizations including the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) say municipalities must brainstorm ways to promote "livable communities." These neighborhoods are safe and secure, offer affordable housing, transportation, health care, and other services for seniors, regardless of age, income, physical ability and race.
The Strategic Action Planning Group on Aging (SAPGA), based in Denver, advises that each of Colorado's counties develop a strategic action plan to help with this widespread demographic shift.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper hired a senior advisor on aging in January, to focus solely on planning for an aging population.
In a 2016 report, SAPGA's board members recommended communities rethink policies and regulations that would affect sidewalks, parks, shopping areas, and transportation systems.
The need for informal caregivers will become more prevalent and districts may consider building additional independent living communities, nursing homes and assisted living facilities, officials say.
"Now we live 20 to 40 years longer after we retire," said Karen Brown, chair of SAPGA. "It requires more planning on where you're going to live, how you're going to save, and how will you manage if you become disabled."
According to the National Institute on Retirement Security, 45 percent of households have no retirement savings at all. Half of those households are headed by a person aged 45 to 65, and the site says by that time, a person may have too few years to catch up.
"As people age, their medical needs change," said Dr. Jules Rosen, chief medical officer of Mind Springs Health, which is based in part in Glenwood Springs and has facilities throughout a multi-county region.
Cognitive changes are expected, but it's hard to know what kind of decline is natural for an elderly person and how much is due to other factors like living at high altitude, medical conditions, and possible head traumas, he said.
"I think the thing that we see most is we start seeing patients with more chronic conditions or we call it comorbidity, so multiple chronic conditions," said Sandy Hurley, chief nursing officer at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs.
Hurley and other staff are preparing for Garfield County's senior population, those age 65 and older, to increase from about 6,500 currently to around 14,000 people by 2030, according to the state demographer's office.
Hurley says she's noticed many older adults have trouble with chronic health issues, transportation, understanding medications, and scheduling appointments when they use the hospital's services.
Hospital staff recently expanded by incorporating social workers and care coordinators, who help with the aforementioned tasks, she said.
Zona Hays, 84, of Glenwood Springs, says she walks to many of her destinations. It keeps her active, but it can be inconvenient at times, she said.
"It's important to me, because it's the only way I can get around," she said.
"If I'm riding the city bus I can't go anywhere in the evening because the bus stops running at 7:30 and I can't get home after," she added.
Judy Martin, manager of senior programs in Garfield County, said night transportation and income levels remain a major concern for the elderly using her services.
She oversees various programs, including a fall prevention course, exercise classes, lunch programs, and more.
"We could use more resources but the reality is where do those resources come from," she asked. "Most people are asking for more hours of service."
Most of Garfield County's senior services are free or low cost, but 53 percent of the seniors who used services last fiscal year received an annual income of less than $14,000 a year, Martin said.
"Often, by the fifth of the month they don't have any money left," Martin added.
The Area Agency on Aging conducted an elder research survey on July 31 of this year, Martin said. She and other county officials are waiting on the results.
The findings will be discussed at the next Garfield County Council on Aging meeting, and Martin says she will use the data to gauge what services are needed most and which can be cut.
Garfield County does not currently have a strategic action plan to address elder population growth, but Martin says the aforementioned survey will help her and others plan.
"Some regions are doing better than others," said Elizabeth Garner, Colorado state demographer.
"A person aging anywhere in the state probably looks at the same things, it's just that the scale and scope may be different," depending on the county, she said.
The Area Agency on Aging for Northwest Colorado conducted a community assessment survey for older adults this year and the data suggests most of Garfield County's seniors are content and plan to remain in their communities. Transportation, cost of living, health care, and affordable housing remain an issue, according to the data.
"I feel optimistic that we will, that we are making gradual changes," Brown, the SAPGA chair, said.
"If we give it a little more thought, it will be better for ourselves, for our children, for society as a whole," she added.
The senior population also helps power the state's economic engine.
Coloradans aged 50 plus accounted for 45 percent of the state's GDP in 2013, and supported 48 percent of the state's jobs, according to the group.
Seniors in Colorado have lower rates of obesity and are more physically active, according to SAPGA, and the state's demographer says in many mountain communities, the aging population is wealthier.
SAPGA's board members maintain Colorado should capitalize on these trends and improve opportunities for seniors in the state.
(Post Independent correspondent Anna Stewart contributed to this report.)
About this series
The Longevity Project explores the trend toward an older population in Garfield County as the Baby Boomer generation ages, and the various outlets to continue living a long, active life.
Today: Garfield County's population is aging, and many are staying active well into their 80s and even 90s. But there are a host of challenges – health, financial and otherwise – that come with an aging population.
Sept. 5: Is 70, or even 80, the new 50? Garfield County's seniors are out there skiing, hiking, riding, and in many cases still working.
Sept. 12: Many seniors would prefer to stay at home for as long as they can as they age, and research shows they live longer if they do. But that creates a need for more in-home caregivers.
Sept. 19: What happens if your savings only lasts into your 70s? A look at the financial realities of an aging population that's living longer than ever.
The Longevity Event
Why do Garfield County and Colorado's mountain resort areas in general have among the highest life expectancy in the country? Speaker Tony Buettner, with the Blue Zones Project, provides science-based answers on Monday, Sept. 24, during the Glenwood Springs Post Independent's "The Longevity Project" event at Morgridge Commons/Colorado Mountain College (above the Glenwood Springs Library). Doors open at 5 p.m.; program starts at 6 p.m.
The program line up includes an interview panel of guests at 6, followed by Buettner's talk at 7 p.m.
Buettner is the senior vice president of business development at Blue Zones, a Minnesota-based team that puts the research of National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner into action in communities across the country. Dan Buettner is the New York Times bestselling author of "The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest," "Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way," and "The Blue Zones Solution."
Tickets are $25 and include food and refreshments, and are available here.
Book discussion: In addition, the Post Independent will host a book discussion of "The Blue Zones" at a date, time and location to be determined ahead of the event.
Starting this Sunday, Sept. 2, the Post Independent will begin its series of "Super Seniors" profiles, as nominated by our readers earlier this summer. These profiles will continue on successive Sundays, Sept. 9, 16 and 23
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