Community volunteers and city leaders are working to change perceptions about the aging population — by taking part in an international initiative to create cities that take all age groups into account when planning public spaces, workforce development and creating new businesses.

The Age-Friendly Communities initiative, started by the World Health Organization, aims to encourage cities and towns around the world to take steps to meet the needs of older residents by enlisting them as a flexible workforce, training employees to work with older clients and finding ways to help them adapt as they age. 

Two women are the standard-bearers for the international movement in Colorado Springs: BJ Scott, former president and CEO of the Peak Vista Community Health Center and former executive director of its foundation, and Claire Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit Innovations in Aging Collaborative.

Last year, the city officially became a part of the national Age-Friendly Communities initiative, largely because the number of residents age 65 and older in the Pikes Peak region is expected to grow by 160 percent by 2040, said Mayor John Suthers.

“If you love Colorado Springs then you’ll want to stay here as you age. That means it’s worth developing strategies and action plans now to endure our quality of life down the road,” he said.

In March, Suthers appointed community volunteers to lead subcommittees to represent eight areas of concern for the aging population: housing, transportation, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, outdoor spaces and buildings, community support and health services and communication and information.

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Workforce development

When looking for part-time or seasonal workers, one group often gets overlooked by companies: the growing population of retired people.

Experts in gerontology and aging say the latest retirees are no longer seeking to further their careers, but aren’t yet ready to exit the workforce entirely.

“They’re very responsible, have very low absenteeism and a very good work ethic,” said Sara Qualls, director of the Gerontology Center and the Aging Center at UCCS, adding that fast-food chain McDonald’s is now recruiting more older adults as employees. While older people may have slower response times or less knowledge about technology, they compensate with hard work, she said.

Frequently, older workers can live on lower salaries, because the part-time job serves to augment incomes from Social Security or company pensions and retirement plans, she said.

“We don’t have enough folks that can live on an entry-level wage,” Qualls said.

But for some businesses, there’s no need for more education or promotion. Many local businesses already cater to older workers, Scott said.

Traditional retirement involves the employee leaving work entirely, but that may not necessarily be what all workers want to do, she said, adding that many people still want to learn and contribute to the community.

When a colleague suggested hiring retirees to serve the tourism industry in the Springs, the business leader responded in surprise, “‘I never even thought about aging adults as a seasonal workforce,’” Scott said.

There are several ways to accommodate somebody who has been a great employee for years but doesn’t want to keep going at 110 percent, she added.

Larger businesses are better able to design work schedules for aging employees, including flexible work hours and telecommuting, Scott said. For example, retired people who travel south for the winter and north for the summer can work at CVS Pharmacy in both locations, she said.

Business opportunities

Several Colorado Springs businesses were created to assist elderly people through both high-tech tools and a more traditional personal touch.

Jan Erickson launched Janska Clothing after making a stylish jacket for a friend in declining health. After a series of strokes, the woman no longer could easily dress herself. From that first design, an international textile manufacturing business was born.

Daniel Davies founded AbleLink Technologies, inspired by his older brother John, who lived with intellectual and physical disabilities.

One AbleLink solution is to help people access email and the internet and another pairs Global Positioning System technology with photos to make it easier to get around, Davies said.

“People who may take a bus, it helps guide a person to recall when to pull the cord,” he said. “It’s time to ring the bell; you’re at the doctor’s office.”

AbleLink develops technology that is simple to use, he said, like the app that reminds people to feed their pets.

Another Colorado Springs business helps older people downsize. Called All Boxed Up, Emily and Robert Hammer — and her parents, Steve and Cindi Bruger— created a moving management company. The company can plan for moves to smaller homes or assisted living facilities.

“We pack, unpack, set up the new apartment, from putting sheets on the bed to hanging pictures and setting up the computers to make it livable for them and to make it feel like they’re at home,” said Emily Hammer. “We specialize in helping older adults with later-life transitions.”