Moving toward age-friendly communities in Larimer County

Oh yes. Every one of us is getting older. But today, according to the stats, there are more people getting older and living longer than ever before. The youngest of the baby boomers have passed the half-century mark. Nationally and locally the percentage of oldsters is increasing at a fierce pace.

This demographic shift has been dubbed the “silver tsunami,” a situation that brings with it a growing need for all kinds of services ranging from housing, health care and transportation to less tangible cultural considerations.

Bonnie Shetler, a psychologist by profession with a long-time interest in older people, is the guiding light behind a unique collaboration of professionals and community members committed to seeing Larimer County communities become “age-friendly.” While the emphasis is on older people, the benefits will be experienced by all, if not now, then later.

Six years ago the first summit on aging was held in Larimer County. The following year a community conversation focused on Growing Older in Fort Collins. In 2012 a summit was held on elder abuse followed by discussions about transportation issues. A “Growing Older” forum in Loveland took place the following year.

“I got tired of talking about these issues and wanted to do something,” Shetler said. Her goal was to take the information from the conversations and surveys and put it into action. In 2013 she was instrumental in getting the Larimer County Office on Aging and the county-wide non-profit, Foundation on Aging, to come together with several other agencies to create the Partnership for Age-Friendly Communities (PAFC).

In 2013, Larimer County was one of six communities in the nation to receive a one-year Livable Communities technical assistance grant from the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a). The n4a provided guidance in identifying local priorities, engaging local stakeholders, establishing realistic goals and recruiting a team of skilled volunteers to develop specific short-term goals. The grant made possible a structured process for moving forward.

“You just can’t do it alone,” Shetler said. “We learned about best practices and about the importance of collaboration.” By December 2013, PAFC had identified four priority areas: mobility, health and wellness, culture of aging and housing.

The PAFC steering committee, which meets monthly, includes representatives of AARP, Fort Collins Human Relations Board, Interfaith Council, the Foundation on Aging, Larimer County Office on Aging, Aspen Club, and others representing transportation, education and Colorado State University.

Priority groups formed early in 2014. Sue Ballou and Katy Mason head up Housing. They are working with Neighbor to Neighbor on a shared housing project and are involved with identifying other creative housing options. They have completed and published online a housing survey identifying existing housing for seniors and anticipated needs. In May 2016 they sponsored a one-day charrette on Universal Design to discuss “housing to age in” with more than 40 stakeholders in the community including planners, architects, developers, consumers, engineers, builders, financiers and Realtors. Facilitated by Brian Dunbar, director of the CSU Institute for Built Environment, the charrette concept is derived from a French term describing an intense design effort by collaborating stakeholders, often with differing points of view. After a presentation on age-friendly design by Cassie White of CSU, large and small group discussions followed on such specifics as kitchens, bathrooms, grounds and entries, elimination of steps, policies and codes, incentives and innovations. The Housing Priority Group came away with a commitment to work on ways to use the information to move the age-friendly design concept forward in Larimer County. A paid position to handle this critical area is anticipated when funds are available.

Gary Thomas heads up Mobility and is working with his volunteer team to increase the use of existing transportation options and to conduct travel training sessions for seniors. They are also looking at transportation options for those who live in rural areas. AARP will conduct a phone survey with a heavy emphasis on those in rural areas to learn of their concerns and needs, especially when it comes to transportation.

Paula Stearns and Cherrie Thornton lead the Health and Wellness priority and have worked with their team to conduct walkability studies in neighborhoods. A dementia-friendly community project is also underway.

The Culture of Aging priority, led by Lynda Meyer and Alan Heileman, encourages positive attitudes toward aging in the community. They developed an “Aging Gracefully” series of newspaper articles and blogs accessible through FOALarimer.org/PAFC or 2bstillgrowing.blog.com.–well worth taking a look at. The group also organized a candidate forum in 2014 to learn about politicians’ positions on issues impacting Larimer County seniors.

In February 2016, the entire county was designated an AARP Age-Friendly Community opening up access to a broad base of information and help in furthering an age-friendly agenda. The designation comes with a commitment to submit an action plan in two years and to complete that plan during the next three years. The priority groups and their teams of self-directed volunteers have their work cut out for them.

Shetler says the most encouraging aspect of working with PAFC has been to observe the results of collaboration. The concept of self-directed volunteers has made it possible for everyone involved to have a role in identifying needs, making decisions and then implementing them, unlike more traditional volunteer jobs that involve only completing an assigned task.

About to turn 70, Shelter continues to maintain a part-time clinical practice, though she has a long commute from her home on Stove Prairie Road and devotes many hours to PAFC. After 40 years of rural living, Shetler wonders about a time when she and her husband may find it difficult to stay in their mountain home. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” she says.

Perhaps through the work of PAFC, her rural community will remain livable for the Shetlers for a very long time to come.

Anyone interested in learning more about PAFC or volunteering is encouraged to see www.foalarimer.org/PAFC. and then contact the organization at: pafc@foalarimer.org

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