Jody Barker

Jody Barker is used to being recognized. After more than 20 years working in the Colorado Springs senior services field, he still answers work-related questions at church or the grocery store.

“I really thrive as a resource for people looking for senior services,” Barker said. “Regardless of what I was doing as a full-time job, people knew that they could come to me.”

Barker’s involvement in local senior services dates back to the late ’90s, when he moved to Colorado Springs and took a job as editor of The Senior Times, now Life After 50.

The position was a stepping stone to roles with the Colorado Springs Senior Center and eventually as the Central Colorado regional director for the Alzheimer’s Association.

With both organizations, Barker often found himself referring clients to the Pikes Peak Area Agency on Aging — which made for a smooth transition to the agency’s director position in September.

“It seems to be a natural fit for what I’ve done over the years,” Barker said.

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A native of Danville, W.Va., Barker has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. He talked with the Business Journal this week about his work in senior services.

Why the transition from journalism to senior services?

That’s a big step backwards to the late ’90s. In my role as editor of the Senior Times, it really didn’t take very long to realize how many great service providers were in our area already, and how many times families were just at a loss when they needed help. … I was learning about senior services, I was getting connected with people and that’s where I really found my passion.

… That was a big turnaround for me to realize that to serve our community really meant more than the original roles in journalism. … I wrote the articles, I made sure people had the information that they needed, I made sure that they had access and were aware of the resources that we have in our community. Now I get to do that by helping partner with fantastic staff and departments that have been doing this for a long time, and so well.

Talk about what the Area Agency on Aging does.

For a little bit of background, the Area Agency on Aging administers the funds from the Older Americans Act, as well as the Older Coloradans Act. We receive those funds from the state, but then we administer those across the three-county  [El Paso,  Tellar and Park] area. What that simply means is that we provide some of the services to the community from within the office here — so we have our information and assistance program, we have our ombudsman service, we have our family caregiver support office, we have our Senior Health Insurance Program counselors. We also do the … Medicare open enrollment, where we assist people to sign up for or change their Medicare enrollment. Normally across the rest of the year, we’re also doing classes around Medicare. It’s simply called Medicare One on One. It allows people who are about to turn 65 to learn more about the process.

… We also have current service providers who are direct service providers in everything from transportation, Meals on Wheels, assistance with chores, caregiving, homemaking, low vision [clients]. … We contract with those providers, and they are paid through those funds that we administer from the state.

Including myself, we have a staff of 15, along with a fantastic group of volunteers. … We look for opportunities for innovation within the parameters of the funds that we have to administer.

Is there anything you wish people knew about the Area Agency on Aging?

Sometimes we hear people say, ‘Well, you’re the best-kept secret,’ and we don’t want to be the best-kept secret. We want to make sure that people know where to turn when they’re looking for senior services. Even if they’re just calling our main phone number to ask questions or to get those referrals, that is what we’re here to do. We’re here to answer those questions [and] either set an appointment for someone to come in to visit with one of the departments based on whatever their concern or question is, or to write them down and pass along those referrals to them and help guide them in the process.

One thing that I’ve seen for years is that many times, families — spouses, adult children — will find themselves in a crisis moment, and that’s when they start to look for services. We want to make sure that people are reaching out to us — or into the community — long before those crisis moments happen … because if they know what services are out there, or at least a phone number to call, those families and individuals are going to be much better off.

What are some of the main challenges of providing senior services?

Sometimes the challenges are around the innovation in outreach or services because the requirements of the funding administration are so strict. But our SHIP counselors and case managers have created this Medicare 101 series. They started it a couple years ago [but] it’s really taken off in this year to the point where … we’ve begun streaming them online, so a person can watch from just about anywhere as long as they have internet access. … We’re looking at other tools like technology to be able to continue to meet the needs of our community.

Have the needs of the senior population changed during your time in the field?

When I really started in senior services — and even a little bit before, based on some historical information that I’m familiar with — the age range of our seniors 20 to 25 years ago was only about 25 years. Typically we would see someone come to retirement age at 65 years old and then pass away in their late 70s [or] sometime in their early 80s. We have seen seniors stay healthier longer, in which case our services have had to change over the years. … Almost every type of senior services had has had to adapt and change because now instead of serving a 20- to 30-year lifespan of a senior, we’re now serving upwards of a 50-year lifespan. There are 100-year-olds who regularly attend the Colorado Springs Senior Center and have been for years.

Years ago, we created a 90-plus club, so if you were 90-plus, all you had to do is show your ID … and you got certain classes for free. At the time, turning 90 was a really, really big deal [but] it got to the point where there are a lot of 90-year-olds. We kept the program, but we realized that what was once an occasional situation became far more regular where people were just staying active, staying healthier, as they grow older. So when it comes to the actual services, we’re seeing those needs longer now.

What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?

It’s when a senior or their family says, ‘Thank you for the services that you offer. Thank you for connecting us to resources. Thank you for taking the time to listen.’ That is the most rewarding part of the job because it’s confirmation that you know you’re in the right place. You’re making a difference in someone’s life. … Sometimes we don’t know at the time of that conversation if we’ve been able to help or if we’ve truly made a difference.

But even if they never say to us, ‘You’ve made a difference,’ the type of work that we do and the type of work that I’ve done over the years, I can rest easy at night knowing that, somehow, somewhere, we have — and I have — made a difference in someone’s life. … When I think back about the changes that have happened in senior services across the years, I’m really pleased that I was able to be a part of that.