SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
When Bette Davis famously said “The young don’t know it yet, but old age ain’t for sissies,” she was referring to the challenges of deteriorating physical and cognitive health. What Davis didn’t take into account were the joys and opportunities seniors can explore in their golden years.
The Durango/La Plata Senior Center serves as the heart of the community for those 60 and older, offering nutritious meals, transportation for those no longer able to drive, exercise to increase health and diminish falls, and social activities galore. A library, computer room and assistance with home chores, help with Medicare, income taxes, health care and other senior issues are also available.
“This is one of Durango’s best-kept secrets,” Connie Belles, 82, said. “I really like the help with home chores. Since my husband died, I have a list of ‘honey do’s’ like changing the furnace filter and changing light bulbs, but there’s no honey.”
Sheila Casey, senior center director, says the center is much more than a list of services.
“It’s an extension of their homes,” she said. “For a lot, this is their social network.”
A growing need
Casey has been the director of the senior center for 14 years. When she began, the kitchen was serving 15 to 20 lunches per day, and now it’s up to as many as 140 per day.
“It’s really growing,” she said. “It’s a silver tsunami. So many people are moving their moms and dads here. We encourage them to come in with their family, because we’re a one-stop shop for senior resources.”
The busy senior center is a microcosm of what is happening demographically in La Plata County.
The 2010 Census showed the percentage of residents 60 and older at 18.1 percent, or about 9,300 people. In 2000, the percentage of residents 60 and older was 13 percent, with more than 5,700 residents falling in that age group.
The increased population has led to the need for more collaborations with other organizations, artists and senior service providers. Services for veterans, a partnership with the University of Denver’s Four Corners Graduate School of Social Work and participation in the San Juan Area Agency on Aging make a number of resources available.
‘Healthy to have place to go’
“People think feeling down is part of old age, but it isn’t, it’s part of depression,” said Pam Wise-Romero, the chief clinical officer of Axis Health System. “It’s really healthy to have a place to go.”
Becoming inactive, both physically and mentally, is common for seniors, Wise-Romero said.
“Being stimulated and staying involved is key,” she said. “We have found that just one social activity can be an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression.”
Physical health a priority
At lunch with Mae Forleo, 98, Mary Rottman, 95, Marcia Ercius, 90, Norma Waller, 88, and Belles, the conversation quickly turned to how much they enjoy the meals and how much better they feel since participating in exercise programs at the center.
The senior center offers both a popular tai chi class based on Dr. Pam Kircher’s model for arthritis and Parkinson’s disease, and Move ’n’ Groove, based on the popular Zumba movement, several times a week.
“We have a stereo system that can slow down the music, which was requested by the line-dancing teacher,” Activities Director Mandi Dicamillo said about making the exercise age-appropriate.
Carol Melcher, food services manager, said her challenge is creating healthy, balanced meals. She bases her nutritional values on what a 70-year-old needs, taking note that seniors have to watch sodium, sugar and other food additives that can affect health. Preparing everything from scratch is one way she can control ingredients.
“The sweet tooth is the last to go,” she said. “I have to watch not having too many desserts, because it’s easy for them to gain weight.”
Not just for octogenarians
Susan Dahl, 66, is one of the youngest seniors who regularly visits the senior center for lunch and activities. She says more people in her age group should join her there.
“The food is good, and I’m not good about eating a well-balanced meal at home,” she said. “There are some interesting people here, and it’s fun to hear their stories – there are so many about Durango in the old days.”