Reducing Isolation Among Denver’s Growing Senior Population

Denver, Colorado

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Instead of more services, our seniors needed better access to the services the city already provides.

Editor’s Note: This is the last in a series of four contributed articles on the Government Entrepreneurial Leadership Accelerator program in Colorado, highlighting four teams’ efforts to find new approaches to vexing public policy issues. You can learn more about the program from Route Fifty’s original article on the topic, In Government, ‘Failure Is Just an Opportunity to Learn.’”

DENVER — By 2035, one in four residents in Denver will be age 60 or over. Today, 20 percent of the aging population reported being a victim of a fraud or scam, 30 percent reported discrimination based on age, and 65 percent reported difficulties being able to find services and activities. This population is also less likely to use technology. Our Government Entrepreneurial Leadership Accelerator team’s goal was to figure out ways to engage this growing population in the community and civic life.

While we were given all these statistics, our team quickly realized we had no real understanding of the current state of the aging population in Denver. In our first few weeks of problem solving, we met with members of Denver’s senior community, along with the groups that typically provide them services—state agencies and various city departments.

These meetings convinced us that Denver’s aging population does not need more services. Nearly all of the services we suggested already existed in one way or another, but none of the service-providers were talking to one another in a strategic way. We therefore decided adding any new services would only contribute to this lack of communication.

Instead of more services, our seniors needed better access to the services the city already provides.

During these interviews, another issue came into focus:  the problem of isolation came up over and over. As we did more research, our team was surprised to learn about the physical dangers associated with this social problem. Living in isolation can be as dangerous to your health as having six alcoholic drinks a day.

These realizations helped us narrow our problem statement down to a single sentence: How can the city connect and engage with a diverse population of older adults to keep them safe, healthy and connected?

As a team, we decided we wanted to work with many different populations and that we wanted to focus on a physical solution that would be easily implementable.

We settled on exploring four ideas: a workforce hiring initiative, a mobile unit, a storytelling initiative and an intergenerational school program. When we pitched these ideas to stakeholders, many responded that storytelling and intergenerational programs were already happening. The Office on Aging was most receptive to the workforce ideas and mobile unit. In fact, the Office on Aging was so impressed with our idea around improving the city’s internal hiring campaign, they decided to take full ownership of that initiative. We were therefore left with our mobile unit.

We decided that this mobile unit, which we branded DenverConnect, would deliver information about services and engage with underserved and isolated populations. Figuring out how to get a mobile van up and running was surprisingly easier than getting to the van idea in the first place; no one from the Mayor’s office ever said it was too much to ask for a van and a full-time staff member to operate it.

Once our solution was determined, we reached out to the stakeholders we met with initially to see if this was something they would be interested in. Nearly all of the agencies and groups expressed interest in partnerships, and they were excited to see how far we had come in such a short period of time.

Our hope is that this mobile solution will both deliver information about services and the services themselves. The van will go to places like community living facilities and bring along with it games or events targeted towards the community. For example, a senior facility we visited in the Montebello neighborhood put on loteria, a form of Mexican bingo. Programming which was a huge success for the facility that we would like to bring it to other locations.

In delivering these services and information, our hope is that isolation will be reduced in the community due to the increased events.

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Elizabeth Kashinski is a student at University of Colorado Law School.

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