Denver is launching a van linking seniors to services

The van, a mobile resource center, was provided in partnership with Colorado’s Attorney General’s office and other agencies.

Phil Wampler, who has lived in Windsor Gardens for two and a half years, poses for a portrait at the Blossoms Restaurant bar in the neighborhood's community center. Feb. 27, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Phil Wampler, who has lived in Windsor Gardens for two and a half years, poses for a portrait at the Blossoms Restaurant bar in the neighborhood's community center. Feb. 27, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

Not every senior knows the government has services for them such as housing and housing assistance and even care for their pets.

Perla Gheiler, direct of Denver’s Office on Aging, is hoping a new mobile resource center called DenverConnect will do just that: Connect the city’s older adult population to various services.

“Our goal is to make sure that every older adult has this feeling of being respected and being communicated to about the services available so they can age in place,” Gheiler said.

The programs she has in mind include assistance paying for pet food costs and even pet care if someone will be out of a home for a prolonged period. The office also can connect seniors to home repair and emergency funding for housing.

The office usually serves folks 55 and over, and it’s a sizable amount of the overall population. Gheiler said the 60-plus population in 2015 alone was more than 109,000 residents, but a forecast from the Denver Regional Council of Governments suggests it will continue to grow. Gheiler said they’re projecting as much as a 71 percent jump by 2040, bringing the total number within this age group in Denver to more than 186,000 people. The city estimates one in four Denver residents will be over 60 by 2030.

“There are so many services and resources that the city offers to older adults that they may not be aware of and we really felt that that would really help with that, whether they want to apply for SNAP or if they have an emergency with a dog or cat,” Gheiler said. “There are so many things we felt this older population was probably not aware of.”

On Friday, Mayor Michael Hancock and Attorney General Phil Weiser are scheduled to appear at a press conference announcing DenverConnect, which in some ways has been in the works since 2017. Partners including the Denver Public Library and AARP are collaborating on the project.

Gheiler will drive the press conference’s main attraction: A Ford Transit Van functioning as the mobile center. She said it will start making the rounds in the city on April 22.

June Zhan (left to right), Chen Ping and Binhai Wei attend a healthy cooking class in the Montbello community room in the neighborhood's Save A Lot food store, March 28, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

June Zhan (left to right), Chen Ping and Binhai Wei attend a healthy cooking class in the Montbello community room in the neighborhood's Save A Lot food store, March 28, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Gheiler said the van is spacious enough to fit a card table and a few people around it. It’s ADA accessible.

“It’s huge … when you walk in, you can actually stand inside,” Gheiler said.

Ruth Starr Montoya, the chairperson for the Denver Commission on Aging, lives primarily in Winter Garden, where she takes care of her father 88-year-old father, Manuel Montoya. A registered nurse, Montoya said she’s her father’s primary caregiver.

Montoya said transportation and access to services are the biggest obstacles for people aging in place in Denver. She said it can be “scary” for senior residents to venture out and find services.

With fast-moving traffic, Montoya said it could be hard for them to cross the street “the way a young person can.”

“They don’t even know what services are available,” Montoya said. She said they usually need a navigator and it can be tricky to find people who can help them. “In some ways, the van model will provide the services, the one-stop shopping.”

Denver is one of at least 25 cities that have established age-friendly policies, which helped Colorado earn recognition from AARP last year. Gheiler said Denver joined the World Health Organization’s Age-Friendly World initiative in 2014. It meant the city would get serious about figuring out how to help the aging population.

Gheiler said one thing that immediately became clear was that, despite a plethora of resources, not everyone knew about them. A lot of older residents still primarily relied on phone lines and snail mail as their primary contact points. They weren’t as digitally savvy as other residents.

“We realized our challenge is how do we communicate all those resources and information to all the older adults,” Gheiler said.

So in 2017, Gheiler took her concerns to a program called the Governmental Entrepreneurial Leadership Accelerator. This team selected her “problem,” which asked how a city could bridge a gap between itself and a community that hasn’t completely adapted to the digital state of things.

Their solution? Create a pop-up office. That eventually morphed into using a van with a bunch of resources bringing information to people’s doorsteps.

As it often does, lack of money got in the way. There wasn’t a budget for such a program, leading Gheiler’s department to start applying for grants. And it was during a roundtable including the AGs office that the state agency decided to provide some funding the program. Gheiler said they provided just over $39,000 to pay for the van. The office also received a grant from the Denver Regional Council of Governments to pay for a full-time staffer to operate the van.

District 11 Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore lives in Montbello, where Friday’s press conference is scheduled to take place. Gilmore said residents from the neighborhood’s leadership have been pushing for the city to provide more services to help with older residents being pushed out of the neighborhoods due to rising costs. Their worries helped highlight gaps in services.

James Allensworth poses for a portrait inside Senior Support Services in North Capitol Hill, Oct. 17, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

James Allensworth poses for a portrait inside Senior Support Services in North Capitol Hill, Oct. 17, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

She sees the van as helping address some of those concerns among citizens who are several miles away from the city’s center. More often than not, Gilmore said senior residents are usually on a fixed income. It can present challenges for aging in place.

“This was an idea that came from the group that (said) we don’t have either the transportation or time to get downtown to try and get resources,” Gilmore said.

Other programs Gilmore said she wants to bring to the attention of seniors include financial empowerment classes, learning more about the property tax rebate program offered to seniors and estate planning.

“Anybody can come and get information and learn more about what programs are available or just get their questions answered,” Gilmore said.

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