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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.

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

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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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.

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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."

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