Offering excellent senior services in Aspen — where no one wants to be old | AspenTimes.com

Offering excellent senior services in Aspen — where no one wants to be old

Five Tibetan Buddhist monks quietly chanted in prayer as roughly 50 people were wrapping up lunch one recent day at the Pitkin County Senior Center, then the visitors opened up a Q&A session.

It probably wasn't the kind of experience that seniors in, say, Osage, Iowa or Colville, Washington, are exposed to. However, it was a typical example of the broad range of activities that the staff at the Pitkin County facility arranges.

On Wednesday, the center is organizing a trip to the Grottos along the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen, complete with a picnic lunch. The staff knows seniors love staying connected to the environment.

There also are events you would expect to find at a senior center — talks on nutrition, help figuring out Medicaid, exercise and balance classes.

"Although we don't have Bingo," said Chad Federwitz, manager of Pitkin County Senior Services.

But the big draw for Roaring Fork Valley seniors is the superb lunch offered four days per week. Michael Fiske cooks a filling, nutritional meal that's free for anyone 60 or older (donations accepted), even if they are visiting from outside Pitkin County, and $9 for anyone younger than 60.

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Lunch attracts a crowd of between 70 and 90 people during busy summer days and about 50 per day during the winter.

The lunches are central to what they do, Federwitz said, because it gets seniors together and talking when they otherwise might be alone and isolated. Even if seniors don't want to participate in any other services, it's worthwhile for them to come to lunch and socialize, he said.

Some lunch guests pop in right after finishing a morning bicycle ride. During ski season, folks will take a break from the slopes and return to skiing after eating.

John and Helene Baran try to come to lunch at the center all four weekdays that it is offered. They have lived throughout the country but are spending as much time in Aspen as possible now that they are in their 80s. They started coming here on ski trips in 1975 and got to know the Dean family while renting accommodations at T Lazy 7 Ranch. They've rented a cabin there year-round since 2013 while searching for permanent housing.

John said he loves the people of the Roaring Fork Valley and he's enjoyed getting to know other seniors.

"The secret here is to get people to talk," he said. He's amazed at the adventures people have experienced and their knowledge.

"They're not sedentary people as far as physical or mental," he said.

The latest U.S. Census data for Pitkin County from July 2017 estimated the population at 17,890 with 17.2 percent at age 65 and older. That means there's in excess of 3,000 seniors living full-time in the county. The Pitkin County center also draws from downvalley. Marylou Felton regularly drives up from Basalt because she enjoys the friends and experiences in Aspen. She said the staff is exceptional — eager for feedback and willing to incorporate good advice.

But Federwitz and his staff don't have as high of rate of engagement with seniors as they would like. Part of it is stigma.

Some people don't want to associate with "old people" even if they themselves are 85 years of age, said Patty Kravitz, program analyst at senior services.

"It's a challenge being located by the Assisted Living Facility because people think we're where old people live," she said.

Peg McGavock, a resident of Aspen for 48 years, started coming to the senior center six years ago after she retired. Why? "Boredom," she said bluntly.

She's loved the experience. "It's like family," she said. After lunch she's part of a group that regularly plays Mahjong and Canasta.

McGavock confirmed Kravitz's theory on why some seniors avoid the place. It's a form of denial — "Everyone is getting old, but not me," she said. "A lot of seniors don't come because, 'That's where the old people are.'"

Some people stick their nose in the door and decide it's not for them, she said.

The senior services staff is a welcoming bunch and always is trying to come up with new ways to attract eligible participants.

"We want people to know this place before they need it," Kravitz said.

The center is holding a Summer Day Soirée from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday at the senior center at 0275 Castle Creek Road, just before Aspen Valley Hospital.

The open house is free and includes food samples from the kitchen, entertainment, exercise class and prize drawings — the big prize being a senior ski pass for next ski season.

The Barans feel that Aspen as a whole is a welcoming place for senior citizens. There is a wealth of free cultural activities to engage in from music performances to physics lectures. The Pitkin County Library is a "godsend," Helene said. The bus system is efficient and free for them.

Their only complaint is lack of housing. They can't find a suitable one-story unit.

Even though Aspen is a place that values youth, beauty and physical prowess, it appears to be a welcoming place for its seniors. The Elks Club is always offering assistance for the seniors. Many places don't have a dedicated senior center. Pitkin County has funded its senior services primarily via the Healthy Community Fund property tax since 2002. Additional funds come from the city of Aspen, town of Snowmass Village, federal and state dollars through Alpine Area Agency on Aging and the nonprofit Seniors Independent.

Federwitz, a gerontologist, said American society as a whole isn't as accepting of seniors as it once was. He said senior services are "pushing up against about 100 years of ageism."

The perception of old people changed shortly after the turn of the 20th century from "endeared sage on the hill to a burden on society," he said. "It's still the only acceptable form of discrimination."

But not if he and his staff can help it. The mission statement of Pitkin County Senior Services is "to facilitate quality of life and independence for individuals over 60."

And remember, they offer a great deal on lunch. Reservations are required 24 hours in advance.

"Go anywhere in Aspen and get lunch for $9," Federwitz said.

scondon@aspentimes.com

SUMMER DAY SOIREE

What: Open house at Pitkin County Senior Services

When: Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Where: Senior center, 0275 Castle Creek Rd.

Cost: Free

Who: Geared toward those 60 years and older