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Senior Moments: Settling in the West
mary kenyon
Mary Kenyon

The prospect of land drew settlers to the Roaring Fork Valley in the 1800s (or the 1970s), as did the lure of gold and silver, a chance for a new life, new opportunities or just the wildness of the West (or Aspen). The promise, the optimism, the lure of stunning mountains, rushing rivers, crisp, clean air, pristine wilderness (the elk are bugling as I write this) …  

Looking at the issues facing the older population — defined as 60-plus years of age — in the Mid-Valley — healthcare, housing, transportation and access to critical resources, we often remark that it’s the “price” we pay for deciding to live in these beautiful mountains. Really? When did area seniors set the bar so low? When did we decide to “settle?”

Does nostalgia and the yearning for the “way it was” prevent us from deserving practical and reasonable amenities? Are we so emotionally attached to our way of life that we gallop blindly into a squall of hardship, loneliness and debt? 

In a recent interview, Sally Field (yes, Gidget is now 72) recognized that “you can’t play the end of the scene at the beginning. You can’t know the resolve. You have to recognize that something needs to be fixed.”

The “fix” will inevitably involve change, and we all know that change is scary. But clinging hopelessly to material possessions, habits, routines and status (are you a local?) will lead to a stagnant, seemingly safe spot where life happens around us … not with us.

As a community, once we identify the challenges to senior health, well-being and social and physical resources, we can enlist the assistance of our leadership to accomplish a shared result of thriving in the RFV. They are ready. Are you?

We have mastered living longer. Over 20 percent of the population in the Mid-Valley is over the age of 60. That’s one-in-five and growing. We have established a place to live, a handful of friends, eat reasonably healthy meals (hey, we shop at Whole Foods!) and exercise more than people our age in other parts of the country.

The focus has been on quantity … a full life. Now the focus needs to shift to quality — a good life. The challenge of living longer rests in being prepared for those “extra” years. Who knew that we would, on average, be living 10-plus years longer than anyone planned? At a minimum, the fiscal requirement for these extra years (without medical expenses) approaches an additional half-million dollars. 

Look around you. Have you settled into a lovely living space you and your family shared 20 (maybe 30) years ago? Is it more than one level? Does it have stairs and stoops, narrow doors, low seating fixtures (!), high energy bills and an accompanying yard demanding annual projects and weekly chores? Are there extra bedrooms and living spaces where you store your “stuff?”

Do you plan on living your next days, weeks and years there? If you answered “yes” to one or more of any of these questions, you may be surprised, or not, that the Valley does not have the infrastructure to support you. From handyman laborers, landscape services and retrofit professionals to doctors and caregivers, the Roaring Fork Valley cannot currently support its aging population. Something — actually, lots of things — need to be fixed.

At a recent community input-session where the topic of how high in healthiness county residents ranked, it was revealed that the underlying reason for that proud statistic was that, if and when one gets sick, they have to move elsewhere for proximity to healthcare professionals, specialized physicians, rehabilitation facilities and/or family members who can act as caregivers. How is that for an independent lifestyle?

Well, I am not leaving. Something needs to be fixed.

Now is the time to engage our leadership in discussions and enlist their assistance in sustaining quality aging in place — this place, our place. Technological advances, employment opportunities, education and social support need to be addressed in fresh, new creative ways to add “life” to our additional years. Legislative changes to housing regulations allowing co-housing, intergenerational care facilities, shared-services incentives and space, and an interconnected community need to replace our desired independent living with an interdependent community.

Both Eagle and Pitkin counties have been designated as AARP Age Friendly communities, committed to actively working toward making the region a great place for people of all ages. AARP’s initiatives focus on areas such as housing, caregiving, community engagement, volunteering, social inclusion and combating isolation among older citizens.

Sound familiar?

In September, Colorado became the third state in the nation to be named an age-friendly state. According to Governor Hickenlooper, “Lifelong Colorado demonstrates our commitment to making the necessary improvements and provide appropriate resources to strengthen families and our communities.”  

In the coming months, we will be spotlighting replicable innovative, private and community, pioneering efforts that will “fix” our ability to stay in the region, supported by people and services desperately needed and/or desired. (A $45K medical helicopter flight to Grand Junction doesn’t count as an option.) We welcome and need your input. Let’s choose not to settle for what is here (or not here) and act now to make it better for our extra years.

Mary Kenyon is a member of Pitkin County Senior Services. Senior Moments will appear monthly.