Senior initiative on “back burner,” but help still available

Senior Initiative
Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland, left, and former commissioner and state senator Tillie Bishop, are involved in an initiative to address senior issues. Although the initiative itself has stalled, Rowland and Bishop say a range of resources are available to help meet senior needs.

It was nearly a year ago an effort to address senior issues in Mesa County reached a crossroads.

Mesa County Commissioner Janet Rowland joined former county commissioner and state senator Tillie Bishop to solicit comments about a proposed GOLD initiative — an acronym for Growing Older … Leading the Direction. Rowland led the charge to form the group in 2007, but it was languishing by early 2010.

Now, it appears to be in neutral. There hasn’t been a meeting since the one staged last April.

“I was disappointed and maybe surprised,” says Rowland. But she and others surmise the lack of interest in GOLD could simply mean there are higher priorities.

Rowland also helped form the Mesa County Meth Task Force and the “How Are The Children?” initiative in the years preceding the GOLD effort. Those earlier efforts carried a sense of urgency that might have been lacking with GOLD, she says.

The meth awareness campaign dovetailed with reports that about half of the inmates at the county jail had been involved with crimes involving methamphetamines. The children’s initiative included a focus on the children of meth offenders. By comparison, the needs of seniors don’t always make the daily news or register as urgent issues.

But senior issues remain as relevant as they were in 2007, particularly with a growing portion of the population graduating to the 60-and-older age group. The county estimates about 30,000 local residents are in the age group — a fifth of the county population. Members of that group face concerns with such issues as employment, health care, housing, public safety, recreation and volunteerism.

Even without the GOLD initiative, seniors can find help to address many of those concerns. “The more we looked at it, it was mostly government people,” Rowland says.

Those same government people provide services through agencies that range from the Mesa County Department of Human Services to the Mesa County Workforce Center to the nationally acclaimed local health care system.

Recreational opportunities abound in Mesa County, particularly because more than half the land is owned by the Bureau of Land Management and is accessible to the public. But there might be room to improve indoor recreation.

“Recreation did come up as a concern,” says Bishop, alluding to comments the committee received from seniors. “The senior center is relatively small with minimal parking.”

Volunteer opportunities are prevalent, from tutoring in public schools to working at visitor centers and local museums.

By 2009, GOLD was more focused on communication, letting seniors know what services are available to meet their needs.

During the follow-up session last year, the cost and quality of health care were the primary topics of interest.

“We’ve had seniors pass out in the bathroom,” said one member who operates a bingo club. “In every case, they’d reduced their meds.”

Others had similar concerns about how seniors might ignore doctors’ orders to take medication because the seniors want to save money.

“Insurance went up, but Social Security didn’t,” says Doris Blake, a former emergency medical technician and medic who advised the GOLD panel.

The uncertainty of future funding for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid remain large concerns for seniors, Bishop says.

A Colorado tax-funded pension for seniors has been partly tapped for highway funds, he adds.

Still others were worried last year there might not be enough doctors to handle the growing population of seniors in Mesa County.

Some local doctors are making plans to stop taking any additional patients who are covered only by Medicare or Medicaid.

This year, the supply of physicians is “not as tight as it used to be,” says Dave Norman, a GOLD member, director of the Area Agency on Aging for Northwest Colorado and employee of the Mesa County Department of Human Services.

Norman says St. Mary’s Hospital, Community Hospital and Primary Care Physicians all have been successful in recruiting young doctors in the past year. “You can find a doctor,” he says.

A bigger concern is that limited government resources might be funneled away from Mesa County and used to fund counties that aren’t as prepared for the increase in the number of seniors in the coming decade.

Fifteen Colorado counties will realize a significant increase in such residents, Norman says.

In Mesa County, the Marillac Clinic offers one solution for low-income residents who need health care. The clinic charges patients on a sliding scale based on their incomes. But there’s already enough demand to warrant a second clinic, Norman says.

Such issues continue to be discussed and addressed, even though the GOLD initiative might be in neutral for now.

“Our committee — we served our purpose and rather than say it’s over, I’d like to say it’s on the back burner,” Bishop says.

The more important question might be how many of the issues can be addressed as resources continue to be stretched in Colorado.