Some seniors struggle due to insufficient in-home services

Registered Nurse Brittany Ahlgrim, with Northwest Colorado Health, checks on Ralph Farrington at his home in Yampa. In-home medical services may be available locally, but a recent survey shows nonmedical services at the homes of area seniors are not always available. (Courtesy photo/Northwest Colorado Health)

A Meals on Wheels volunteer driver noticed a client did not seem well while on his route in spring 2020, delivering prepared lunches to seniors in their homes in Steamboat Springs.

The single, senior woman in downtown Steamboat seemed to be experiencing stroke symptoms. The driver knew she needed medical attention, but early during the pandemic, the woman was more concerned about COVID-19 exposure.

“I’ll be fine,” the senior said repeatedly. Eventually, the volunteer convinced her to seek medical care, where she was confirmed to have suffered a stroke, said April Sigman, executive director of Routt County Council on Aging.

This incident is just one example that illustrates the importance of, and need for more, in-home services for seniors in Routt County and Northwest Colorado, Sigman said.

A senior needs assessment survey conducted earlier this year showed that approximately one in five seniors surveyed said nonmedical assistance services would help them remain living in their current homes, said Northwest Colorado Health Aging Services Coordinator Leigh Hull.

Hull oversees the Aging Services Coalition of Northwest Colorado, which started in spring 2020 and was funded by a grant from the Denver-based private foundation NextFifty Initiative. The regional coalition works to identify gaps in services and implement strategies to allow older adults to live safely and with dignity in their local communities, Hull said. The coalition includes representatives from 30 agencies across Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Grand and Jackson counties.

The survey completed by 280 seniors in the five counties focused on transportation, socialization, communication and housing needs. Seniors who responded cited needing help from a handyman (57%), with snow removal (45%), with nonmedical chores, such as grocery shopping and errands (24%), and with transportation (21%).

Survey respondents said the top four ways they receive information about services are through a local senior center, local newspaper, friends and neighbors, and internet searches.

Needs for in-home services for area seniors became even more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, Meals on Wheels deliveries in Routt County increased by 340% above 2019 numbers, Sigman said. Pre-pandemic, Meals on Wheels drivers delivered an average 10 to 20 meals per day but now deliver more than 80 meals per day, with a peak of 110 meals per day in late 2020.

Senior services representatives, such as Sigman and Anita Reynolds, the Aging Well Program coordinator for Northwest Colorado Health, said participation in senior in-person services, such as group meals, has not returned to prepandemic levels. One reason is some area seniors moved away to larger areas with more services, such as Grand Junction, Colorado Springs or Fort Collins.

“We’ve seen a number of clients move out of the community to be closer to family or (closer to) more services,” Sigman said.

Northwest Colorado Health does not tackle the survey-indicated needs of handyman, snow removal or yard work for seniors, but the agency does have an active service for personal care providers, said Christalin Thompson, in-home support services manager. Thompson supervises 10 employees who work in Routt and Moffat counties in three capacities: personal care worker, homemaker and certified nursing assistant.

The staff offers assistance 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday with nonmedical needs such as bathing, light housekeeping, grocery shopping, meal prep and running errands. The cost paid privately is $45 to $50 per hour, but significant discounts are available for seniors who qualify for a Client Assistance Program, or CAP, Card through Northwest Colorado Health offices in Steamboat or Craig, Thompson noted.

The regional coalition is working diligently to improve communication and outreach about senior services that are available, yet local professionals say the needs of seniors trying to stay in their homes are not being met fully in more rural regions. Senior individuals also have difficulties finding, understanding and navigating the various levels of assistance.

“I don’t believe we have enough staffing or agencies that can offer all that seniors need or have the manpower to get seniors where they need to go,” Reynolds said. “We still have a lot of work to go to get familiar with what everybody does and each piece of our puzzle.”

Experts say the need for assistance for seniors will continue to increase based on demographic predictions for strong growth in the 65-plus age category in Colorado. Local professionals who work with seniors say they currently receive numerous calls from seniors or family members of seniors asking for referrals for services that the families have not been able to procure.

Northwest Colorado is home to a “hugely independent population of seniors who don’t know what they need until they have a fall and realize it’s not safe at home anymore and need someone to help them recover,” Hull said.

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