Aging Dynamics

It’s approaching noon on a beautiful summer Tuesday, and the Eagle Senior Center is buzzing with activity. A low-impact exercise class is wrapping up in one room while the dining room begins to fill with a vibrant community of seniors. Most still live independently and either drove here themselves, were dropped off by a loved one or got a ride on the dedicated senior ECO Transit shuttle. Lunch for seniors is hosted by Eagle County Healthy Aging every Tuesday and Thursday in Eagle and every Wednesday and Friday in Minturn. Each location has its own unique identity and autonomous site council made up of seniors.

On this particular Tuesday in Eagle, the group ranges from those in their early 60s to the oldest member, 96-year-old Ruth Lenz. 

Lenz moved to Eagle thirty years ago to help her daughter when she had twins. Now her daughter helps take care of her. As Lenz settles in for lunch, her daughter runs off to vacuum Lenz’s apartment. “You know the reason she’s doing so well is because she has a daughter,” her friend Judy Clock says matter-of-factly. “We should all have daughters.” Clock refers to a phenomenon of caregiving in the U.S., which is supported by data from the Institute on Aging that reports upwards of 75% of all caregivers are female, and may spend as much as 50% more time providing care than males. 

The Eagle seniors are a mix of longtime locals and transplants. “Do you know what? I used to know everybody,” says regular attendee Johnnette Phillips, whose Louisiana accent lingers even after 64 years of living in Eagle, including eight years as Eagle County’s first female County Commissioner and 14 years as the County Clerk and Recorder. “Now a lot of the people move here because they have kids here. We seem to have a lot more people coming to the senior group all the time.”

Phillips is right. The senior population in Eagle County has been growing at a steady clip and is projected to multiply exponentially in the coming years. And, in a place as active and youthful as the valley, in many ways the county-wide conversation is playing catch-up as the need to create services and infrastructure around supporting a growing senior population and their caregivers comes into focus. 

While Eagle and Gypsum have been communities for more than 100 years, the popularity of Vail, and then Beaver Creek, drove a population boom from the 1970s onward, which centered around an active, outdoor-focused lifestyle. Those first waves of avid outdoorsmen and women are now aging into older adults as a newer crop of retirees is also choosing to settle in Eagle County to enjoy the outdoor lifestyle and often to be near children and grandchildren. In 2010, Eagle County’s population of adults aged 65 and older was at 3,069. Five years later, that number had almost doubled to 5,573. By 2035, those 65+ are projected to account for 20% of the population.

Many of the people in this group are unusually healthy and active for their age, which allows them to delay some of the degenerative issues that affect their peers in other parts of the country. Neurologist Dr. Marc Treihaft, who practices both in Denver and Eagle County, notes that while Denver has a very active senior population, “Vail is a hyper-magnification of that. There are people in their 80s and even 90s that are still skiing, biking and staying active.” 

Even so, at some point, time catches up with all of us. Aging body systems, suffering an injury or experiencing a bad fall can be detrimental to an older person. Local endocrinologist Dr. Rebecca Adochio notes, “People who live here, from a mentality state… they have this thought of being very youthful and active, and that keeps them youthful and active — but they may not always realize that their body is changing, and they can’t do the same things as effectively and efficiently as they once could.”

Local internist Dr. Dennis Lipton treats adults of all ages. He says, “One of the most important rules of aging well is ‘don’t get injured.’ Being injured prevents you from moving and exercising, impacts sleep and often leads to poorer food choices due to limited strength and mobility. All of these things lead to accelerated aging. Often, people’s aging occurs in large step-offs instead of a gradual decline.”

In a sprawling community whose culture is so defined by outdoor pursuits, a large step-off physically can also mean a drastic change in people’s social life, both in their capacity to keep up physically and often in their ability to drive. “It’s very isolating for people when they are no longer able to keep up with their peers,” says Dr. Lipton. “It can lead to significant depression.”

While accepting major changes in one's physical activity level is often hard on such an active and healthy population, it is essential to continue to be physically and socially active in some capacity. Fortunately, the need to support seniors as they transition into progressive aging has come to the forefront of Eagle County Public Health’s goals for a healthy population. “We are looking at the gaps that exist that might keep folks from aging here long-term,” says Eagle County Healthy Aging Supervisor Carly Rietmann. “We are looking at these gaps at a systems level to work towards filling them by addressing things like access to better health care, transportation and social opportunities.” 

Ensuring these services are in place is not only essential for the aging population but for the health of the whole community, argues Judd Haims, who owns and runs non-medical homecare provider Visiting Angels.

"If you don’t allow our seniors to live here, you’re missing out on the ability to pass on generational knowledge to our youth. You’re missing the social interaction of creating generations that work together,” says Haims. “Most of us who move here, we don’t have our parents here, so what are our kids seeing of older people? How do they relate to older people? There are steep impacts when we don’t have our seniors around town.”

THE SANDWICH GENERATION
Rebecca and Nick Kanaly’s family is the picture of multigenerational living as they stroll through Nottingham Park on a summer afternoon. Her 72-year-old father, Jim, has memory issues related to a traumatic brain injury and uses a walker, which 2-year-old Charlotte carefully guides while their 14-year-old lab mix saunters ahead on his leash. “I hear ‘Do you need help?’ a lot,” Rebecca says, laughing. “And I say, ‘Yes!’” 

Rebecca and Nick are members of what is known as the “sandwich generation,” raising their own young child while caring for an aging parent. According to the Pew Research Center, people in this situation of providing care and/or financial support for an elderly parent, while also supporting their children make up about one-in-seven middle-aged adults (15%) in America. The pressure of rising health care costs is especially pronounced for this group, whose numbers in Eagle  County are sure to increase along with the rising numbers of seniors. 

When Rebecca first looked into moving her disabled father to be with her in Vail in 2010, the prospect of caring for him was overwhelming. “I didn’t feel ready,” she says, “and I think that’s really important for other caregivers to hear because we always question ourselves.” 

She began to research by calling Adult Protective Services of Eagle County. “They actually told me ‘It’s not a good idea…there are no resources for seniors with traumatic brain injury here.’” But the avid snowboarder knew that to find her own satisfaction in life while caring for her dad, she had to try bringing him here. And for Jim, who spent some of his happiest years in Colorado, the chance to return to the mountains was hugely appealing. They decided they’d give it a shot. 

Almost immediately after the move, Jim ended up in the hospital due to a variety of complications. Rebecca was grateful that his 10-day stay allowed her to quickly connect with a team of providers that would end up caring for her father for years to come. She found doctors who were genuinely invested in helping her dad, and there was good communication amongst his various caregivers. 

Rebecca also began attending the Eagle County Caregiver/Memory Loss Support Group, where she and other members identified the frustration over a lack of resources for the aging population with disabilities and memory loss. “So we started what was Eagle Valley Senior Life (which is now Caregiver Connections),” says Kanaly, who helped develop the organization as treasurer for three years while she worked toward her bachelor’s degree in business at Colorado Mountain College. 

Jim still attends Caregiver Connections’ twice-weekly programs at the Eagle River Presbyterian Church. Adults aged 55+ living with moderate limitations can participate in activities that encourage social interaction while caregivers receive respite and resources. 

Helping to establish the group was just the start for Rebecca, who has since gone on to earn her Executive MBA from University of Denver and is now the executive director and CEO of the local United Way. If that sounds like a lot to juggle on top of also raising a toddler, it is. “I want to continue my career, and I also want to be a mom and take care of my dad,” she says. “People say, ‘How do you do it?’ Hands down, the answer is: ‘with help.’”

Rebecca has become an expert in navigating the resources available to seniors and caregivers in Eagle County, as well as the support and care available through her father’s insurance. She makes use of groups like Caregiver Connections as well as Visiting Angels. She has also trained a local friend to care for her dad for a few hours, twice a week. Rebecca is especially grateful for the seemingly boundless positivity and support of her husband, Nick. “I love Jim as much as I love my own dad,” Nick says with a grin, “and I treat Jim even better!”

The family squeezes into a two bedroom condo in Vail, with Jim and Charlotte each having their own room and Nick and Rebecca sleeping in the living room. They say in many ways the setup works for their family, but they are actively saving toward a down payment on a larger home, likely down valley. 

“(Caregiving at home) is not for everyone,” says Rebecca, “but if you can do it, it brings you so much closer.” As she says this, Charlotte toddles over to give her grandpa’s walker a playful tug. Jim, who is seated on a bench, gamely takes up a gentle game of tug of war. Rebecca watches them with a smile, “I value this time, and now I hope that my dad lasts long enough that Charlotte can fully process what’s going on because she loves him. Just seeing the way she interacts with the walker, you can just see she really cares about what happens to him. This is what I want for both of them.” 

According to the National Alliance of Caregiving and AARP, roughly 34.2 million Americans have provided unpaid care to an adult age 50 or older in the past year. At $470 billion in 2013, the value of unpaid caregiving exceeded the value of paid home care and total Medicaid spending in the same year.
 
LOCAL CARE
For those who aren’t able to care for aging parents in their home, there is income eligible independent housing at Seniors on Broadway, as well as assisted living apartments at Castle Peak, both of which are located in Eagle. Prior to Castle Peak’s opening in 2016 (initiated by and in collaboration with valley communities and Eagle County), there were no assisted living or in-patient skilled nursing and rehabilitation facilities in Eagle County, meaning residents would need to relocate to either Garfield or Mesa counties or the Front Range for that type of care. Having a facility of this kind not only allows residents to stay in the valley, it also provides area caregivers the ability to have their loved ones close by. As of 2017, Castle Peak also became approved to accept Medicare and Medicaid for its skilled nursing, short-term rehabilitation and memory care services. 

Edwards resident Mindy Mauro’s mother-in-law, Blanche Mauro, lives at Castle Peak and Mindy says it’s a relief to know that Blanche is just a 15-minute drive away. “My husband and I are there one to three times a week,” she says. 

Doctors check in with Blanche right at the facility, which is a huge benefit since many residents no longer drive. Mindy also likes that as Blanche ages, she’ll be able to stay in a facility that is familiar. “Even if she moves into a higher-tier level of care,” says Mindy, “the people know her there. And I think that's important.” 

For Blanche, coming to Eagle was a homecoming decades in the making. Born in Squaw Creek (near what is now Cordillera) in 1924, Blanche was one of 11 children in a family of homesteaders. “It was pretty wild back then,” she says, laughing. “There was just nothing. I’m 40 years older than the Town of Vail!” 

Originally from Mississippi, Blanche’s parents chose to come to the valley for many of the same reasons as people who come today. Her grandfather, a minister born in Ireland, had ridden on horseback from Mississippi to see the famed Mount of the Holy Cross. He’d always spoken of the area’s beauty, and so when Blanche’s mother and father decided to adventure west to homestead, they chose to be close to Holy Cross. After finishing high school in Gypsum, Blanche spent the intervening years raising a family in Colorado Springs.

The first day Blanche came to tour Castle Peak, she was introduced to a group of residents, one of whom commented, “I only ever knew one Blanche.” It just so happened that resident was Blanche’s first cousin, Margaret, who she had affectionately called “Sissy” when they were growing up. They had lost touch and hadn’t seen one another in nearly 75 years. Now, they live just down the hall from one another. 

While the opportunity to move into Eagle’s first assisted living facility made for an incredible reunion with her cousin, the intimate setting sometimes makes an extrovert like Blanche feel a little stir crazy. The gregarious nonagenarian thrives in social interactions, which Mindy credits as being the secret to her vibrant longevity. Fortunately for Blanche and the rest of Eagle County, a growing system of support and resources for seniors is right outside her door, ensuring a community that values a healthy, multi-generational county for all.

SENIOR SERVICES

CAREGIVER CONNECTIONS
Improving the quality of life for older adults with cognitive, physical or social limitation, and supporting their caregivers.
(970) 977-0188 | support@getcaregiverconnections.org

DIETARY GUIDANCE & CONSULTATION
A service provided through Eagle County's meal program.
(970) 531-4172 

HEALTHY AGING RESOURCES & INFORMATION
Eagle County Healthy Aging is a terrific resource for all things senior related in Eagle County, including:
• Home-delivered meal program
• Volunteer driver medical transportation
• Nutrition counseling
• Resources and information
• Senior Center activities for those "60 or better" in Eagle and Minturn
(970) 328-8896

HOME-DELIVERED MEALS
Offered to home-bound older adults two days per week.
Gypsum/Eagle/Wolcott: (970) 328-8896
Edwards/Avon/Minturn/Vail: (970) 328-8831

IN-HOME CAREGIVING
Assistance Caring 4 You Homecare (970) 390-2889 (medical & non-medical)
HomeCare & Hospice of the Valley (970) 930-6008 (medical & non-medical)
Visiting Angels (970) 328-5526 (non-medical only)
People Care Health Services (970) 874-0136 (non-medical only)

MEDICAL TRANSPORTATION SERVICES
If you are in need of a ride to a medical appointment, call Mountain Ride.
(844) 686-7433 | mtnride.org

MEDICARE INFORMATION & COUNSELING
State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) for Medicare beneficiaries
(970) 468-0295 x120 | SHIPMedicareCounseling@gmail.com

MENTAL HEALTH & WELLNESS
Eagle Valley Behavioral Health
www.eaglevalleybh.org

PUBLIC TRANSIT OPPORTUNITIES
Eagle River Valley: ECO Transit Paratransit is also a service offered by ECO Transit for those who are medically unable to drive.
(970) 328-3250

RESOURCES & INFORMATION
Alpine Area Agency on Aging (AAAA) assists seniors and caregivers with resources for aging well,
including:
• Information and referrals
• In-home services
• Transportation
• Home-delivered meals
• Legal assistance
• Financial assistance
• Caregiver support programs
• Counseling for care management
(970) 468-0295 x107 | alpineaaa.org
211 is a non-emergency health and human services resources call center. The team at 211 is bilingual and has a comprehensive list of resources available to  people in the community. wc211.org

SENIOR-SPECIFIC HOUSING
Senior-specific independent living complexes in Eagle: Golden Eagle Apartments and Seniors on Broadway (970) 328-8897
Castle Peak Senior Life and Rehabilitation (970) 989-2500

VETERANS’ SERVICES
Assists veterans and their families file for benefits.
(970) 328-9674 | pat.hammon@eaglecounty.us

VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES
Alpine Area Retired and Senior Volunteer Program is a volunteer program specifically for people 55 or older.
(970) 468-0295 ext.122 | volunteers@nwccog.org