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(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Maxine Lorensen, 91, gets onto the Richfield Senior Center bus Wednesday April 10, 2013.
Top challenge for Utah seniors: Getting around

The problem gets worse in rural communities; buses could be a solution, but the funding is always tight.

First Published Jun 02 2013 10:33 pm • Last Updated Jun 02 2013 10:36 pm

Richfield • Marion Hughes is waiting at the curb when the white mini-bus eases to a stop in front of her Richfield apartment. The 86-year-old woman is bundled against the chilly spring morning and, stepping up the steps of the aging bus, she greets the driver and three other seniors.

Hughes and her companions are headed to the Sevier County Senior Center a few minutes drive over Richfield’s gravely roads. When they arrive, the small group disembarks, sits at long tables with other seniors and eats steaming cups of chicken noodle soup. Later, they’ll play bingo before boarding the bus again for errands around town.

At a glance

Utah’s senior population growing

Utah’s population over 65

2010 » 250,321

2030 » 552,005

Percent increase » 120.5

Utah’s population over 85

2010 » 31,105

2030 » 73,981

Percent increase » 137.8

Wasatch Front population over 65

2010 » 143,624

2030 » 296,875

Percent increase » 106.7

Wasatch Front population over 85

2010 » 18,619

2030 » 35,507

Percent increase » 90.7

Source: Governor’s Office of Management and

The ‘Smart Growth’ solution

In Pedestrian and Transit Oriented Design, Keith Bartholomew and Reid Ewing explore possible solutions for mobility issues in more urban areas: creating places that are “walkable” and designed to incorporate public transit so cars aren’t required.

The authors note that demand for this type of development is increasing. In particular, they write, “as baby boomers become empty nesters and retirees, they are exhibiting a preference for compact, walkable neighborhoods.”

In a conversation earlier this year, Ewing explained that the idea is to increase densities, shorten distances to public transit and design places where walking is possible, among other things. These concepts broadly fall under the label of “smart growth.”

Ewing added that smart growth-style development offers the opportunity to get around with or without a car.

“At some point I’m not going to be driving and I want to be in an environment where I can still get around,” he said.

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Hughes doesn’t drive. When she was 85, declining vision and reflexes convinced her she didn’t belong behind the wheel, she said. Hughes acknowledged she misses her car, but the senior bus takes her to lunch, grocery shopping and other errands.

For seniors like Hughes—particularly those in rural communities — the bus is a solution to the problem of diminishing mobility. But it’s imperfect: The bus, operated by the Sevier County Senior Center, runs just four days a week, said center coordinator Georgette Harvey. Drivers are mostly volunteers, though there are a few paid employees, and funding is always tight.

Like many smaller Utah towns, Richfield has no traditional public transportation to fill the gaps. The result is patchwork coverage that gets some seniors around some of the time. Worse still, experts on aging and demographics in Utah say the state is about to be hit with a massive wave of people entering old age, many of whom will struggle to get around.

An aging population • Though Utah is famous for the lowest median age in the nation, Pam Perlich said the state is quickly getting older and grayer.

"We have an age wave here just like everywhere else in the country," said Perlich, a senior economist for the Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Perlich attributed the "age wave" to two major factors. First, she said, the massive baby boom generation — in which births accelerated after World War II and peaked in 1957 — is now entering old age. Second, people are living longer, meaning they spend more years, or decades, as senior citizens.

Among other things, Perlich pointed to significant immigration into Utah from other states beginning in the 1970s. People who came to the state for jobs several decades ago are preparing to retire.

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The Governor’s Office of Management and Budget bears out Perlich’s observations, noting that between 2010 and 2030, Utah’s elderly population will more than double to more than half a million people. Thirty years later, in 2060, there will be more than 1.1 million seniors in Utah.

Nels Holmgren, director of the Division of Aging and Adult Services, said Utah may feel demographic changes more acutely than other states.

"In Utah, obviously, we’re the youngest," he explained. "But we’re also the sixth-fastest growing senior population."

A rural issue • The so-called age wave creates many issues, but for people living in rural areas one of the biggest is getting around. And like elsewhere in the state, the rural senior population is growing rapidly.

In Sevier County, experts expect the number of seniors to grow by more than 60 percent by 2030, going from 1,547 to 2,484 people. The number of Sevier County residents over 85 will be nearly twice as high in 2030 as it is today.

According to Perlich, rural communities in particular struggle because young people tend to leave.

"In general, rural areas are areas where young people leave for economic and educational opportunities," Perlich said. The elderly who remain gradually make up a larger segment of the population.

Other rural counties show similar patterns. In Sanpete and San Juan counties, for example, the elderly population will nearly double over the next 20 years. In Morgan and Kane counties, it will more than double. Most other rural Utah counties fall somewhere in that range.

The elderly population will increase dramatically along the urbanized Wasatch Front as well, but Holmgren noted that small towns don’t have the buses, trains and taxis that people living in urban areas take for granted.

"In rural areas there are some cases where there are no options," Holmgren added. "There’s not equality depending on where you live."

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