Otero County and the communities dotting the Lower Arkansas Valley have sizable populations of elderly residents, but these rural areas don't always have the specialized medical care or transportation to properly look after an aging population.

That's why Jim Collins, regional director of Area Agency on Aging, visited the Otero County Board of County Commissioners' meeting Monday: to pitch a proposal for a four-year (at least) county commission on aging.

Collins, current mayor of Las Animas, believes that collaboration is key to becoming proactive in the race against aging. It's not a race that one can win, per se, but through education, prevention and training, communities can be better prepared to take care of their elder citizens, he said.

Collins aims to build county commissions on aging across Southeast Colorado's six county region, which includes Baca, Bent, Crowley, Kiowa, Otero and Prowers Counties.

"In Las Animas, we just became the first city that's a livable community," said Collins.

Collins has previously expressed his hopes and ideas for Area Agency on Aging during community development work sessions.

"Now what I'm going to do is come to each of the commissioners and say to you 'Let's make you a municipal/county-level livable community in all six counties.' The reason that's important ... is because Governor Hickenlooper actually created a program called Lifelong Colorado.

The goal of the program is to have 20 cities by the end of 2020, and 100 cities in 10 years, be categorized as "liveable communities." There currently are only six such cities in Colorado that have earned that designation.

Livable communities are defined as communities that integrate the needs and contributions of people throughout their lives, regardless of age, into every facet of the public life, in order to adapt to a resilient and rapidly aging population.

To become a livable community requires eight "domains" to be satisfied to properly sustain an aging population: outdoor spaces and buildings; transportation; housing; social participation; respect and social inclusion; civic participation and employment; communication and information; and community and health services.

The National Area Agency on Aging website predicts that by 2030 almost 20 percent of the nation's population will consist of people ages 65 and up. A document provided by Collins says 27 percent of Otero County's population is 60 years old or older, with 4,905 in that range and 1,709 people age 75 or older. Baca County has the highest population, relatively, of persons aged 60 or older:33 percent, or 1,159 individuals.

Collins said at Monday's meeting that in his position as AAA Regional Director, he feels he can be a "lead element" and establish to others that preparation and care for an aging population can be accomplished.

"I'll be engaging commissioners and other municipal leaders in the region," said Collins. "There's several different funding sources and short notice grants that are available."

One problem that the four-year plan poses is getting the word out and, even more so, getting feedback from the people who'd benefit most.

"One of the things that's critical and one of the problems that we had initially on trying to do our agency, our four-year plan, is that there has to be an established trust," said Collins. "Otherwise, people like me and everyone in the room probably won't go out and do a survey or they won't answer the phone or do anything else. So it's hard to get that feedback from them."

The agency distributed 1,400 Community Assessment Surveys for Older Adults across the six-county region. The questionnaires asked recipients to rate their overall quality of life and to include aspects of such. Out of the 1,400 surveys sent out, only 268 were returned.

"To me as an educator that's an absolute failure. ... I'd hate to know I built a program after only 20 percent, you know?" said Collins. "That's why it really kicked me to actually get out there."

After a disappointing response rate, Collins took it upon himself to visit senior citizens face-to-face to learn their perspectives. He held 11 separate sessions with various county commissioners and visited nearly every senior center in the Lower Arkansas Valley, he said.

"This aging plan as you have it is a result of that," Collins said. "Miraculously, I sat on enough other boards that we're all doing listening sessions, and the results are the same. We're all talking about the same thing. So my thought on this is 'Well ,let's just collaborate. Instead of ... each one of us doing something different, let's all do something together.'"

Collins' aspirations don't end with AAA, however. He's also dedicated to bringing educational and training resources for dementia and diabetes to the valley. Collins said he will soon be briefing and training his first group of dementia-friendly staff at La Junta's Village Inn.

"Much like a mechanic in my real world, we have an ASE sign that we put up," said Collins. "Well there's actually a dementia sign that's the same thing, it says 'we are dementia friendly.' It's a marketing tool for them, as well, but more importantly it gets us out into the restaurants and the community where they actually engage people that have dementia."

At a City of Las Animas work session earlier this year, Collins told the La Junta Tribune-Democrat that dementia-friendly services staff are trained on how to interact with dementia patrons and how to identify when a patron may be uncomfortable or confused and how to make sure they enjoy their dining experience.

"We need that specialized medical care that doesn't exist here," Collins said of AAA, as well as dementia services. "And it's a national trend, same thing. We typically don't get out into the community and actually engage the community and saturate the community with education, just like diabetes or dementia or anything like that.

"That's where I wanted to go with this."

cburney@ljtdmail.com