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Top challenge for Utah seniors: Getting around

Published June 2, 2013 10:37 pm

The problem gets worse in rural communities; buses could be a solution, but the funding is always tight.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

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.

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.

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."

Less mobility, fewer options • Like Hughes, the other passengers on Richfield's senior bus have given up driving.

Frank Whickham, 96, quit after crashing his car four years ago. George Hawley, 93, said he started riding after losing his wife. Maxine Lorensen, 91, has no family nearby and is almost entirely reliant on the bus.

"I don't know how people in my circumstance get along without it," Lorensen said.

Harvey said Richfield seniors who need a ride in the middle of the day, four days a week are in luck. If they need a ride at another time, Harvey does her best to arrange one. Sometimes, she succeeds.

If the seniors have an appointment in a distant community, the options are even slimmer; the bus only makes the 2½ hour trip to the Wasatch Front once a month. And both Harvey and Todd Thorne — a planner with the Six County Association of Governments, which deals with senior mobility in Juab, Millard, Piute, Sanpete, Sevier and Wayne counties—said resources are always stretched thin.

According to Mary Guy-Sell, mobility manager for the Wasatch Front Regional Council, that means people start to miss out on vital services that require traveling a longer distance.

"Many people miss appointments," she said. "We have a significant problem with seniors being able to access everyday needs."

In smaller towns strung through the narrow Sevier Valley, options are even more limited, Thorne added, with buses passing less often and going to fewer locations. That puts seniors who need to get around in a tough position.

"It's quite a ways just to get to a grocery store," Thorne added.

Aging in place • Every day for 25 years, Klarence Meldrum drove 10 miles from his home in Levan to Lisa's Country Kitchen in Nephi. Meldrum, now 91, was a fixture at the restaurant, but in early 2012 his vehicle broke down. Soon thereafter his living conditions broke down as well.

When Meldrum was no longer physically able to leave his home, neighbors began bringing meals to him. By early 2013, neighbors weren't sure if Meldrum would ever get out of bed.

While Meldrum's case is extreme, it epitomizes the challenges of "aging in place." While he was eventually, moved to an assisted living facility, Ewing said that isn't a realistic option for the cohort now entering old age.

"The baby boom generation is too large to institutionalize like that," he said.

Data on the number of seniors who remain in their homes is hard to come by, but University of Utah professors Keith Bartholomew and Reid Ewing argue that reduced mobility is a reality for many people. In the introduction to their recent book Pedestrian and Transit Oriented Design, the professors write that roughly one in five people older than 65 don't drive at all. More than half of seniors only drive occasionally.

"Older adults who lose their ability to drive remain at home most days, losing much of their independence and the ability to access essential services," the authors wrote.

Many people want to age in place, staying in their homes rather than going to senior oriented residential institutions, according to the professors. That poses a challenge, because "only 45 percent of Americans over 65 live in proximity to public transportation."

Holmgren said some elderly Utahns are probably slipping through the cracks.

"I do think some of our people are not getting out," Holmgren said. "People become really limited because they become really home based."

Makeshift solutions • About an hour north of Hughes' home and just up the street from Meldrum, 99-year-old Clarence Paystrup deals with limited services and limited mobility.

Paystrup lives alone in a home near the highway. He has a driver licence, but according to his son Alan, isn't comfortable actually using it. Levan also has few services; there is no significant grocery store, retail or public transit. So Paystrup cobbles together several solutions. His son said Levan has a senior bus that goes through town once a week and his father sometimes uses that. In warm weather, Paystrup also gets around town in a golf cart.

In colder weather, Alan's family, who lives next door, brings him goods from the grocery store in neighboring Nephi. If Paystrup can't make it to church, members of the local LDS congregation bring some services to him.

Paystrup's case illustrates the way many seniors deal with reduced mobility: relying on family, using what limited services exist, and simply going out less.

But Thorne, the planner with the Six County Association of Governments, said more systematic solutions are needed.

Thorne's organization has been working with the Utah Department of Transportation to provide a bus that would start in central Utah, go through Provo, and end in Salt Lake. He also is working to coordinate the various community senior buses in his region so they serve more members of more communities. And other senior buses like the one in Richfield traverse many parts of the state.

According to Thorne, however, the success of future programs hinges on funding, among other things.

Perlich agreed, saying it's an issue that will come to a head soon and will impact everyone.

"If we're all self-reflective, we understand that this is something that's part of all our lives," she said.

jdalrymple@sltrib.com

Twitter: @jimmycdii —

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.