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With COVID in rearview mirror, how is Southwest Colorado reengaging seniors?

Survey cites transportation troubles, lack of geriatric providers and poor access to mental health services as concerns
Walt Dear entertains the lunch crowd Friday at the Durango-La Plata County Senior Center. Senior groups across Southwest Colorado are considering what services and activities should be prioritized over the next four years. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The hot air rising from the gentlemen’s table in the cafeteria at the Durango-La Plata County Senior Center shimmers in the distance but becomes palpable when they introduce themselves – “Downtown Brown” “Durango Joe” and the ballast in the balloon, “Ken Ammeman.”

The men are bent-elbowed and wasting no motion as they shovel in lunch as fast as forks allow.

The lunch program is the foundation of the Durango-La Plata County Senior Center, serving 56,022 meals countywide each year. Pictured from left to right: Downtown Brown, Durango Joe and Ken Ammeman. (Garret Jaros/Durango Herald)

The camaraderie the men enjoy while having lunch at the center gets at the heart of what staff considers a top priority – eliminating social isolation – as the center also looks four years into the future to secure funding for programs and the assistance seniors indicated they need in a recently completed survey.

The San Juan Basin Area Agency on Aging, in collaboration with the Durango senior center and other senior centers in the five-county region of Southwest Colorado, addressed planning and programming issues for the next four years in part by surveying seniors in those counties. The agency receives state and federal funding, which it then parcels out to senior centers based on designated needs. The agency will coalesce the results of all five surveys and report back to the state in March.

For now, however, getting seniors out of isolation is the first piece of the puzzle that the Durango senior center plans to tackle in its efforts to promote senior health.

“During COVID-19, Meals on Wheels was our essential service – that was a priority,” said Vicki Maestas, director of the Durango senior center. “And currently our goal, our focus, is bringing seniors back to our center.”

During the heights of the pandemic seniors were encouraged to stay well by staying home, but now that it is safe for them to venture out, it is important for their health to get back out, Maestas said.

“But because the norm was to stay home for 2½ years, it’s now a challenge to get the aging population back out into society,” Maestas said. “Because during COVID what we ended up seeing was a physical and mental decline in our aging population. So our real goal is to prohibit that social isolation.”

In 2022 the Durango senior center served 70,000 people with its various programs, including its five-day-a-week lunch offering.

Char Gustafson serves a sweet and sour pork lunch to Bob McGrew on Friday at the Durango-La Plata County Senior Center. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Back in the cafeteria, Durango Joe dismisses answering questions between bites, while Ammeman pauses just long enough to exhale, “Oh yeah, you bet,” when asked if the center is a help to seniors in the community? Only Downtown Brown breaks off, with fork still clutched for action, long enough to elaborate.

“There are activities like the Tai Chi,” Brown said. “And then they have people who get together and play music. And then you’ve got different people here who can help you with your Medicare questions. I like to come and eat lunch because of the vegetables and fruit, which I don’t get at home, so it allows me to get a more balanced meal. Plus I get to come and hang out with this notorious bunch right here. And it’s also good because if someone doesn’t show up, we can check on them. So it’s kind of a support system.”

The results of the survey conducted in Durango revealed transportation to be a top priority.

“Because we are in a rural area, transportation into Durango was the No. 1 concern,” Maestas said. “So we have certainly changed our focus.”

Transportation for non-drivers, as well as the high price of gas for those commuting from outlying areas, were identified as barriers to reaching the senior center and other senior services in town.

Also mentioned in the survey results was frustration at not being able to secure appointments with health care providers in Durango. People asked whether some of the funding that will be allotted by the state and feds could be used to provide incentives to attract physicians – specifically geriatric providers.

“We do struggle with having geriatric providers, doctors within the Durango area,” Maestas said. “Once you turn 65 you are eligible for Medicare and our aging population don’t have a lot of alternatives in the Durango area. To the best of our knowledge there are very few, maybe five, if that.”

Maestas believes the shortage is because of the lower reimbursements Medicare pays to providers.

Other issues the survey mentioned include addressing gaps in health care between what is covered by insurance and what consumers can afford – particularly with things like dentures, hearing aids and most especially prescription drug costs. Mental health needs “are huge” and Axis Health System is inadequate because wait times are long and resource providers are scarce.

Jim and Judy Hendricks bring their service dogs Dolci and Dante on Friday to lunch at the Durango-La Plata County Senior Center. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

One of the “worst forms of ageism” is having most information and access to services, especially mental health services, available digitally while many older and particularly rural residents do not have access to digital services, survey takers said.

Finding housekeepers and home-health providers is also a troublesome issue because there is either a long waiting list or the providers will not accept Medicaid for payment. Again, survey takers asked if the funds to be allocated couldn’t be used to fill the gap in the payment process.

“There is a 60-90 day wait for payment, and it’s at least that long to get on a Medicaid provider list,” respondents stated on the survey. “And for the many who do not qualify for Medicaid, what can be done to help them with healthcare costs?”

Maestas, who has worked for the county for 18 years, four of those as the director of the senior center, said the biggest change she has seen during her time is the number of individuals suffering dementia or early signs of brain trauma.

Mary Ann Crist gets a ride home on the Durango-La Plata County Senior Center bus on Friday after having lunch and socializing at the center. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“We know seniors in general are living healthier, longer lives, getting good meals and exercise, but we also know there are 1,000 individuals in La Plata County suffering from early brain disorders like dementia and Alzheimer's.”

A day care facility for people suffering with dementia is also on the radar for the senior center. How that would look, maybe at a church, is something Maestas is working on.

“There is no place locally to drop off aging parents who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s when people go to work,” Maestas said. “So we are seeing people retire early to care for their loved ones. And they can’t afford to retire. It’s very important for the community to offer that or have that resource.”

For more information about the Durango senior center’s activities, classes, programs and meals call 382-6445.


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