After a two-decade career dedicated to serving and taking care of others, Sheila Casey, director of La Plata County’s Senior Services, deserves to take some time for herself.
At least that’s the resounding message from colleagues and friends in the days leading to Casey’s retirement in January.
“Over the years, she’s always been one of those people that jump in to be involved, and she’s always been a really strong advocate for the older population,” said Pat Adler, executive director of Community Health Action Coalition. “I don’t know how she’s juggled it all for so long.”
Casey became director of La Plata County Senior Services in 1999. As the days wane in that role, and retirement nears, she has mixed emotions.
“These 20 years have been really happy and productive years,” she said. “And I leave with many memories to cherish for the rest of my life.”
Casey grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, with seven siblings. Her youngest brother had special needs, and she naturally took on the role of caring for him. It’s this early sense of care-giving that led her down this career path, Casey believes.
“I could see how important it was in my brother’s life to be an advocate for his needs,” she said. “You have to be an advocate and speak up for people’s needs, and that’s what I do here for older adults.”
After stints in Oregon, where she attended community college and had children, and Denver, where she finished her graduate degree, Casey moved to Durango and took a job as a counselor.
All the while, her perfect job was in the making.
Back in the 1970s, older residents in La Plata County were looking for a communal place to meet and hold events. Known as the “Old Timer’s Columbine Club,” seniors started holding potlucks and other activities in people’s homes.
Soon, a concerted effort was made to save money, hold fundraisers and obtain grants to purchase a building for an official spot for these hangouts. In 1978, The Durango-La Plata County senior center was built.
“This has really become a community focal point for seniors to come, meet people and socialize,” Casey said.
Casey was hired in 1999 as the number of seniors in Southwest Colorado was increasing. The first time she walked into the senior center, there were about 15 people eating lunch.
“It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop,” she said. “But I saw a lot of potential here, and I had a vision it could expand to be an amazing place for seniors to access all the services they need to thrive.”
Now, for example, Casey said the center has between 60 and 100 people for lunch every day. And, the center can be especially busy during the holidays.
“If they can’t be with their families, this is like a home away from home for them,” she said.
Casey said the senior center’s benchmark is its nutrition program. The three centers in Durango, Bayfield and Ignacio serve 45,000 meals every year, and an additional 120 meals a day are delivered throughout the county.
The center also provides 1,300 hours annually of assistance with home improvements to help seniors live in their homes as long as possible. There’s also a robust transportation system that helps older adults get around.
Numerous daily activities at the center, including Zumba, tai chi, computer classes and bingo, provide avenues for socializing. Casey said that in many ways, her vision long ago has come to fruition, making retirement easier.
But as La Plata County’s senior population continues to grow, her successor, Vicki Maestas, will have no shortage of challenges, namely transportation and affordable housing.
Maestas could not be reached for comment Friday.
Despite retirement, Casey said she will still be around.
“I may not have a microphone in my hand talking to them,” she said. “Instead, I’ll be sitting at the table sharing a conversation at lunch time.”
Faye Gooden, president of the La Plata Council on Aging, said she’s seen firsthand Casey’s impact on the senior center and her interactions with older adults.
“She’s just very careful about how she handles people,” Gooden said. “She has worked very hard for the seniors, and she deserves to move on to something else and to do some fun things in her life.”
Casey is looking forward to taking more time to ski, hike and bike. She also has a partner, three children and two grandchildren she intends to spend more time with.
“And, my special needs brother needs a little more car coordination, so I want to help more with that,” she said. “In a way, it feels like it’s coming full circle now.”