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How long can you age at home? It may depend on network there to help

Rural agencies share resources to help seniors postpone assisted living
Dan Ford and his wife, Cyndee, look over items in Dan's parents’ house Saturday in Bayfield. The couple is navigating how to manage his parents’ property after the older Fords moved into assisted living in June. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Dan Ford, 73, of Bayfield has spent the last few weeks roaming his parents’ house sifting through their possessions. The elder Fords, Joe and Jane, both in their 90s, recently left their home and moved into an assisted living facility.

It was a transition the family wasn’t prepared for, Dan Ford said.

“We just didn’t think about how this might look,” he said.

Like the Fords, many older Americans find themselves choosing between assisted-living facilities and other options, like aging at home. But new insurance systems, health care needs, at-home care options and geographic isolation come with a steep learning curve for both parents and children. In La Plata County, local groups are assembling resources to help.

“It was their plan, and our plan, to be close by and aging (together),” said Ford, who lives next door to his parents. “I don’t think anybody thought about what it would look like when they did need help caring for themselves.”

Many families face challenges when it comes to aging in place or moving into a care facility.

Finding and paying for caregivers can be expensive, said Martha Mason, executive director of the Southwest Center for Independence. In rural areas like La Plata County, geographic isolation can lead to social isolation. Adults who can no longer drive do not have easy, consistent access to public transportation. That means, no way to get groceries or to get to the doctor or dentist, she said.

Pam Wilhoite, executive director of Pine River Shares, a Bayfield nonprofit, said people need social connections to age in place, even if it’s just a neighbor who regularly checks in with them. That can be difficult when people and resources are far apart in rural areas.

“To be able to thrive in place and be healthy and independent across your lifespan, people need social connections,” Wilhoite said.

Dan Ford sits with Luke, his dad’s dog. Ford said his parents’ transition into an assisted-living facility has been difficult for the family. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Moving to a long-term care facility can be confusing to people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, said Erin Youngblood, general manager for Comfort Keepers in Durango, Farmington and Los Lunas, New Mexico.

“A lot of kids feel guilty that they can’t take care of their loved ones,” Youngblood said. “Recognizing that, getting support for themselves and knowing there’s a lot of wonderful benefits to living in a (assisted living) community can help.”

For the Ford family, the transition was sudden and they did not know where to find resources.

Jane Ford, 92, raised four children and served on the Bayfield school board. Joe Ford, 93, played different roles in his career. He was a teacher and a coach in the 1950s, an investor in Pine River Valley Bank and the owner of Durango Realty – although people may know him best as a prolific fisherman and outdoorsman, Dan Ford said.

Jane and Joe Ford wanted to age in their home, but once the family realized 24/7 care was necessary, assisted care seemed like the only option, Dan Ford said.

Jane and Joe Ford moved into Evenings Porch Assisted Living in Bayfield at the beginning of June. They were unavailable for comment because of two active COVID-19 cases among staff members at the center.

“He hunted, fished, tooled around on his riding lawn mower. Now all of the sudden, he feels like he is in jail,” Dan Ford said. “I think he’s softening a little bit as he’s getting used to the idea. They’ve had 75 years together. He’s there for her, and I think she recognizes she needs the care.”

Dan Ford looks through some of his dad’s belongings Saturday in Bayfield. Some will be auctioned off, some will be disposed of and the house might be sold, he said. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Ford and his wife, Cyndee, have started gathering information about how to go forward with managing the property and possibly selling the home. They plan to dispose of some possessions and auction off others. (The fishing gear will be popular, Ford said.)

“For me psychologically, I just retired in March. People ask what are you going to do? I thought I’d travel. I’m not able to do that,” Ford said. “At the same time, I feel guilty for not doing more for my parents. But I wanted the freedom that comes with retirement, too.”

The resources to help families during similar transitions are out there, but they can be difficult to find, Wilhoite said.

Joe and Jane Ford, Dan Ford's parents, when they were first married. Dan Ford will be going through his parents’ home after they recently moved into assisted living. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The Pine River Shares Thrive in Place initiative, a community-led group gathering input from Pine River Valley residents, spends part of weekly meetings compiling resources. For the moment, those resource lists are in notebooks and are not yet available online, she said.

But Thrive in Place volunteers are developing a network of neighbors who can provide resources to others and identify people experiencing geographic isolation. People just have to call Pine River Shares and ask to be connected with a neighbor, Wilhoite said.

“We understand that people are going to trust people who live close to them,” she said.

La Plata County Senior Services has a comprehensive resource list, said Wilhoite and Youngblood.

Senior centers accumulate a collection of resources and are helpful places to find information, they said. The Southwest Center for Independence and the San Juan Basin Area Agency on Aging have experts and resources to help.

“I would say call a home care agency and talk to the person,” Youngblood said. “I have been in the field for 12 years, and I’m happy to help people without them wanting my services. I can help them get in touch with organizations that are specific to their needs. I would say every agency would be supportive of someone just in answering questions.”

There are grants and financial assistance for at-home care, tax write-offs and benefits for older people and surviving spouses.

“People tend to wait until it’s a crisis. That’s the key thing I see,” said Youngblood, who suggested doing homework on care options, Medicare and Medicaid.

Even keeping a home and allowing caregivers to live there, exchanging rent for care, can be an option, Mason said. The Single Entry Point Program through Community Connections arranges for Medicaid caregiving and other support, she said.

Joe and Jane Ford, pictured a few years ago. Both hoped to live at home into their old age, but 24/7 at-home care was not possible for them. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

One tip: Older adults should have as much control over the transition as possible, even if it just means picking out the furniture in their new room, Youngblood said.

“It helps them feel like they’re in charge of their life. They’ve been high-functioning adults, and now all of the sudden they’re losing their power and independence. That is frightening, and overwhelming and frustrating,” she said. “I think patience and understanding and respect go a long way for everyone involved in the aging process.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

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