Longevity Project — Part 3: Aging in place preferred by most Garfield County seniors
September 11, 2018
Editor's note: This is the third 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.
Working as a caregiver has always been an easy task for Veronica Marquez.
She took on an informal caregiver role when she was just 12 years old, to assist her mother, who had neuropathy and diabetes.
That was almost 25 years ago, she says, and since then she's formed strong bonds with many of her clients.
"You have to have the heart for it, because you have to put yourself in their shoes," she said.
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"When I come to this age, I'd rather stay at home than a nursing home," she added.
Many would agree with Marquez's sentiments. In fact, 90 percent of seniors would prefer to stay at home as they age, according to a 2017 article by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) on the costs of aging in place.
Even if daily assistance and health concerns are an issue, most would still prefer to "age in place," according to the AARP article.
Research shows seniors tend to live longer and age more comfortably when they remain in their own homes.
Patients generally outnumber staff in nursing homes, which can affect overall care, and facilities struggle to retain staff, especially in rural areas.
Seniors receive individualized care in their own home and form bonds with their caregivers who, over time, develop a deeper understanding of their patients' ailments, behaviors and overall health.
By 2020, about 40 percent of Americans will die in a nursing home — compared to just 25 percent eight years ago — even though it's still one of those most underutilized forms of long-term senior care, according to a 2010 study conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Death in nursing homes is most likely to occur directly after a person is admitted, within the first year of their stay, according to the study.
Infections are common in long-term care settings and are a major cause of morbidity and mortality in nursing homes. Residents live in a confined setting, participate in activities in groups, and infections can spread quickly and easily in these kinds of environments, according to Infectious Disease Clinics of North America.
Cognitively impaired residents may not understand basic hygiene and the elderly become more susceptible to infections.
"I think that's always the goal, is to keep patients in their home in a safe environment, as long as cognitive ability is not impaired," said Sandy Hurley, chief nursing officer at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs.
Over the next 10 years, "We're looking at expanding tele-health capability [by] maybe having an office visit with a patient in their own home instead of coming into the doctor's office," she said.
By 2035, one in three households [in comparison to today's one in five] will be headed by someone aged 65 or older, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.
Like Hurley, officials in other districts are looking for ways to develop innovative independent living communities so seniors can age on their own, according to the Joint Center at Harvard.
Judson Haims, owner of Visiting Angels, is very aware of the fact that living in our mountain towns as a senior citizen can be challenging. Medical specialists and service providers are in short supply, he said.
"Until our communities provide a greater breadth of service to our elderly, we will fill the gap by providing personal care, medication reminders, assist with socialization, provide transportation to medical appointments and running errands, and above all – advocate be a voice on their behalf," Haims said.
Assisting the elder population in having the option to remain safely living at home is what Visiting Angels does. Unfortunately, one of the most frequent reasons elderly persons are forced to leave their home is due to falls, he said. Second to falls, many elders must leave their home due to challenges in managing their health and adhering to the medical regimen their medical providers have suggested they follow.
Haims and his office staff spend considerable time making sure their clients personal, social, and health needs are met with the same level of care that they would provide to their own loved ones.
"By communicating with our client's medical providers, pharmacists, and family, we make sure our client's have every opportunity possible to remain independent and at home," Haims said.
home can mean alone
Marquez has provided care to Rosemarie Romeo for three months. Romeo, 77, lives in an independent living community called "Sunny Side," in Glenwood Springs, and describes it as a place where "you're responsible for your own apartment, everything except for the maintenance of the building," she said.
The minimum age requirement is 62. There are 44 apartments total, and at the entrance there are few steps and a ramp for those who need it. The salary cap is $40,000 a year, Romeo said. She waited three years before finally securing an apartment, she said.
"I think having your own independence is so important," she said.
"In nursing homes, the meals are at certain times in the day and you don't have the choice of, 'what do I want for breakfast?'" she added.
Living alone presents additional challenges, said Zona Hays, 84, of Glenwood Springs. One of her friends eats one banana for breakfast every day and some rarely get out of bed, she said.
"Living alone is on the one hand liberating because you can do whatever you want, but it isn't good because you don't have anyone to share anything with," Hays said.
Seniors who live alone in Northwest Colorado reported dissatisfaction with availability of long-term care options, quality of life, and mental health, according to a survey conducted by the area's Agency on Aging.
Less than 25 percent of the respondents receive help on a daily basis, according to the study, and Hispanic seniors had more trouble finding a reliable family member or friend in times of need.
Hispanic seniors reported more incidents with physical health, locating and understanding social services, and had a much higher rate of falls, according to the survey.
"People who tend to live alone can be at higher risk for institutionalization because they may not have the same support," said Lee Tyson of the National Research Center, which conducted the survey.
"If someone's at higher risk for institutionalization, they tend to live alone, they tend to have a lower income, and often times, they are racial minorities, and are older," she added.
The Garfield County Department of Human Services runs a program that helps families decide what living situation is best for an elderly relative. Judy Martin, manager of senior services for the county, said there are funds that can pay for in-home health care if the person needs it.
Martin says many of the elderly who live alone will travel to different meal sites to maintain interaction and avoid isolation.
"Isolation is a huge risk factor for elderly people," said Karen Brown, chair of the Strategic Action Planning Group on Aging in Denver.
Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky noted that the new Peregrine Senior Living facility in Glenwood Springs is expanding to include a new dementia section. And, a bond issue was passed by the Grand River Hospital District in Rifle for memory and long-term care to help address the need.
Marquez's mother broke her ankle one day at home and sought care at Glenwood Springs Health Care, a local nursing home. She says her mother had bed sores, dry mouth, a stomach infection, and a severe urinary tract infection during her five-month stay at the facility. She says she called the state health department and no one ever called back.
Ruth Barber, 81, of Rifle, says she hopes to see the county develop more independent living communities. She's lived alone for nine years, following her husband's death, and wishes for more senior housing projects.
"There's several in Grand Junction, but a lot of us don't want to move there," she said.
She tries to keep herself busy by taking long walks with her Havanese Poodle, Gilbert. She eats well at local meal sites, attends a cancer support group, and serves food to those in need, she said.
She says the key to aging well while living alone is staying active, busy, and taking care of one's self because, "if you don't, nobody else will," she said.
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.
Aug. 29: 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 volunteering in the community.
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.
Sept. 19: What happens if your savings lasts only into your 70s? A look at the financial realities of an aging population that's living longer than ever.
Each Sunday through Sept. 23, the Post Independent is also featuring a series of "Super Seniors" profiles, as nominated by our readers earlier this summer. Look for the next installment on Sunday, Sept. 16.
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, including food and beverage, and can be purchased online here.
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