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Once Upon a Time There Was an Age-Friendly City

“Given the demographics of the country in general, and Colorado Springs in particular, we can expect our senior population to grow dramatically in the coming years. To be a city that’s attractive to all generations, as we want to be, we need to ensure that we have amenities and services that allow our senior citizens to be active, healthy and safe.”
–Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers

“Given the demographics of the country in general, and Colorado Springs in particular, we can expect our senior population to grow dramatically in the coming years. To be a city that’s attractive to all generations, as we want to be, we need to ensure that we have amenities and services that allow our senior citizens to be active, healthy and safe.” –Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers

Imagine a place  where a retiree can enjoy safe, scenic parks and trails, find a part-time job to augment Social Security and access the best healthcare. If an older adult doesn’t want to burden the kids with caregiving – no worries. There are plenty of affordable living, personal assistance and meal programs available and a transportation system that provides trips to the grocery store, social activities or the doctor. 

Is this Shangri-la – or is it tomorrow’s “age friendly” Colorado Springs? 

Thanks to forward-thinking Innovations in Aging Collaborative community leaders and the Office of Mayor John Suthers, in 2015 the city became a member of the AARP Network of Age Friendly Communities. Colorado Springs joined 72 other U.S. metropolitan areas working to create a livable, enjoyable community in which to live and age. It also became a part of a global initiative that includes cities like Geneva, Tokyo, Mexico City and Istanbul. 

AARP Network membership requires each U.S. city, town or district to submit to a rigorous membership assessment and provide a signed pledge from a mayor or community representative that aligns with eight World Health Organization (WHO) Age Friendly Cities global “domains” or guidelines. 

These include: outdoor spaces and buildings; transportation; housing; social participation; respect and social inclusion; civic participation and employment; communication and information, as well as community support and health services.

The new Age Friendly focus represents a solid step toward achieving what IIAC co-founders BJ Scott and Barbara Yalich first envisioned in 2009. “Since aging begins the day we are born, our goal has been to make the city an exceptional place in which to age for all generations,” Scott explains.

Action is needed sooner rather than later to meet anticipated demand.

A 2015 IIAC “Aging in the Pikes Peak Region” study compiled by Summit Economics Senior Economist Tucker Hart Adams reported that during the 1980s the city saw a tremendous in-migration of new families. 

“They came young, well-educated. They found jobs and started companies. But now they’re getting older,” she explains, “Not only did their numbers increase, but as a generation they’re living longer.” And unlike preceding retirees who frequently moved to warmer climates, most Baby Boomers plan to stay here. Many are bringing their own aging parents to live with them, and today’s oldest Boomers – age 67 – may already have AARP qualified children.

At present, El Paso County is projecting a 179 percent increase in the 65+ population between 2010 and 2020 when one in four local residents will be 65 years of age or older – and one in 10 will live to be 95.

“This creates interesting issues. Many houses are not on one floor. Hallways or doors may not be wide enough for wheelchairs and a few steps can create a big hurdle,” Adams adds. Beyond that the bigger challenge is social isolation. 

Getting people out when bodies no longer work well isn’t easy. Transportation presents a huge issue and opportunity. 

“There are two kinds of elderly: those who can afford to pay and those who can’t,” she explains. Additionally, the National Caregiving Alliance reports that 80 percent of the cost of elder care is assumed by family – often creating a financial, physical and emotional strain on working caregivers. 

So what innovative strategies are in the works?

One local nonprofit began its age-friendly services 45 years ago. Last year, Silver Key Senior Services provided its clients with more than 65,000 Meals on Wheels and 50,000 rides to medical, personal and community destinations. It also continues to serve as a guardian for adults referred by the Colorado Springs Police Department, Adult Protective Services and others. 

“Our programs aren’t just about the food, rides or being an emergency contact. More importantly we represent human interaction and socialization,” says President and CEO Pat Ellis. 

IIAC Chairman of the Board David Lord says his organization will step up efforts to find community-based solutions and to foster an intergenerational approach wherever possible. “We want to create a large, diverse task force representing various political, social, education and aging community groups and have it in place by this spring,” he says. IIAC will also research “best practices” already in place in other cities.

“We will never have bus service like one finds in Washington, D.C. or New York, but we might follow Portland’s lead and develop intergenerational transportation options,” Adams suggests. Examples include “Deals on Wheels,” a volunteer program where real estate agents who are out and about offer to give an older person a ride. Mothers with young children also volunteer to do pick-ups. They report the kids are fascinated since most don’t see their grandparents often – and the seniors enjoy seeing the kids. 

Other innovative possibilities: social enterprise projects like “Uber for the Elderly” or development of new fiber optic tools that remind home-bound folks to take their medicine or monitor blood pressure. As an Age Friendly city, Colorado Springs is now dedicated to turning such possibilities into reality.