Douglas County faces an aging dilemma

By Chris Michlewicz, Staff Reporter
Posted

Douglas County has long been known as a youthful community, but that’s all about to change.

Between 2010 and 2015, demographers anticipate that the population of county residents above the age of 60 will jump by about 47 percent. The number of people above 75 will go from 4,970 to 8,625 during the same time period.

And as it stands, Douglas County is already in the top 10 in the nation among counties with the fastest-growing senior populations.

Experts say there is a combination of factors that contribute to the figures, chief among them being that few who move to the south Denver suburb ever leave — a concept known as “aging in place.” The county’s resident retention rate far surpasses state and national averages.

But another trend is emerging that has housing developers and human services departments scrambling to prepare for a rapidly aging population. Seniors are moving from all around the country to either live with or move close to their adult children, as well as their grandchildren.

While family members are busy at work or school, older adults often look for social groups and activities to occupy their time, said Jodie McCann, coordinator for Highlands Ranch Senior Outreach Services.

“We are encouraging people to understand their options and take advantage of the programming that’s available,” she said.

McCann regularly fields phone calls from homebound seniors about transportation and general questions about housing options. Until recently, the slowdown in the real estate market put development plans for senior living facilities on hold. Now there is an abundance of age-restricted residential communities under development, including three in the Parker area.

The projected surge in retirees “was off everybody’s radar” during the economic slump, and many agencies and businesses are trying to catch up to the growing demand, said Jayla Sanchez-Warren, director of the Area Agency on Aging at the Denver Regional Council of Governments, of which Douglas County is a member.

Sanchez-Warren says Douglas County is severely under-served in its senior services, but local leaders like County Commissioner Jack Hilbert and development planner Terrence Quinn are quickly working to fill in the gaps.

Because there is still a young population — an estimated 30 percent of county residents are under 18 — officials are trying to determine if there are services that can benefit both age groups. Buses used to take students to school in the morning, for example, could be used to transport seniors to medical appointments and gatherings with friends during the daytime, Sanchez-Warren said.

The challenges

People are living longer these days, and that presents some obstacles. More seniors are outliving their retirement savings, partly because health-care costs have soared and cost-of-living increases have been sparse.

More people than ever are relying on government assistance to make ends meet, but budget problems could stand in the way of satisfying the demand.

“Funding won’t grow by 40 percent in the next five years, so we have to figure out a way to get around it,” Sanchez-Warren said.

On the flip side, there is an issue with a glaring lack of awareness of the services that are available and where to find them. DRCOG has launched the multi-pronged Boomer Bond program that aims to educate cities and counties on ways to better market the available services and meet the needs of residents. It’s a tool kit for communities that are beginning to plan for older populations, Sanchez-Warren said.

Still, there are some who are unwilling to accept any sort of public assistance, presenting another challenge.

“Some of the rural folks are very hardy, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps type of folks who don’t even think about using services,” Sanchez-Warren said. “But what they don’t understand is if they wait too long, they could end up in a facility. If we can provide a few things like nutritious meals, that could be enough to keep them going.”

The rural-vs.-urban dilemma in Douglas County means local decision-makers and regional agencies like DRCOG must devise individualized plans for the counties in its jurisdiction. Jefferson County is trying to keep pace with an explosion in its senior population and is a “microcosm of what we’re going to see in the rest of the region,” Sanchez-Warren said.

Douglas County leaders are trying to ensure that there are more residential projects that include ranch homes with no-step entryways. A handful of developments that are still in the planning stages will offer routine lawn maintenance for their 55-and-older homeowners.

Transportation services are lagging behind in Douglas County. The Regional Transportation District does not serve Castle Rock or southern areas of the county, and budget cuts have threatened RTD shuttle buses that some seniors say are their only means of getting around.

Budget cuts spelled the end for Castle Rock’s Clean Air Transportation Company service, or CATCO, in 2010.

Assets to community

According to a recent survey, 78 percent of Douglas County residents said they are either very likely or somewhat likely to remain in the community through their golden years. While some might perceive that as a continued drain on resources because of the high cost of services, others choose to see the silver-haired lining.

“They benefit our community because it’s usually older adults who are the ones volunteering in schools or at the library,” Sanchez-Warren said. “They are a great resource.”

Bill and Nancy Gripman, both 82, lived in Parker for 30 years before moving into Vi at Highlands Ranch retirement community last year. They decided that the upkeep on their three-acre property, including shoveling and mowing, would be too much.

The Gripmans considered moving out of state, but decided to stay in Douglas County because all of their friends live here. Additionally, their children are spread throughout the country, and Colorado happens to be smack-dab in the middle of them.

The Gripmans are a perfect example of the community assets to which Sanchez-Warren refers. They are longtime Rotarians and regularly volunteer their time at service organizations like the Parker Task Force.

Nancy Gripman is a member of the Parker Area Historical Society and Parker Breakfast Club, and Bill Gripman serves on the resident advisory committee at Vi. They both spent time March 9 teaching first-graders at Frontier Valley Elementary School how to read.

“Keeping active, especially keeping the mind active, is really important,” said Nancy Gripman, who enjoys the educational programming at Vi and social opportunities through places like the Parker Senior Center.

Sanchez-Warren sees examples of involved seniors on a regular basis. She serves on an advisory committee on aging that has three members over the age of 90, all of whom rarely miss a meeting. Their perspectives are key to crafting effective approaches to meeting tomorrow’s challenges.

“We need to change the way we think about serving our seniors,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to do it well and we need community supports to help us do it better.”

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