‘By keeping your seniors here, you’re keeping the whole wheel of life’: Group searches for senior care amid Summit County’s void

Two Summit locals tell stories of driving hours back and forth to see loved ones in need of assisted care

Leigh Girvin, left, and her mother Judy Girvin, right, pose for a photo during one of Leigh's visits to Judy's assisted living facility on the Front Range. Judy was transferred to the facility on the Front Range — over an hour away — when her health condition became too severe. There are no facilities in Summit County to accommodate her needs.
Leigh Girvin/Courtesy photo

Mark Addison and his wife, Polly, loved classical music and jazz. Whether they were listening to it, dancing to it, attending concerts or collecting recordings of it — music was their favorite shared hobby. 

It’s one of the many things Mark missed after Polly was transferred to a memory loss center in Boulder. The two lived in Summit County together for almost 30 years until Polly’s health began to decline.

Polly experienced multiple heart attacks and strokes near the end of her life. She also developed Alzheimer’s Disease, as well as Parkinson’s. This left Polly unable to care for herself and in Mark’s care. 

Though Mark briefly served as her caregiver, Polly’s condition worsened. In 2018, her doctor recommended that she be sent to an assisted-care facility. 

However, the closest facility to Summit County that could meet Polly’s requirements was, and still is, an hour and a half away. To care for Polly and ensure her needs were met once she was at the facility, Mark had to drive to Boulder.

This is because, as of now, Summit County has no residential options for seniors with disabilities. 

There are no assisted living resources, memory loss centers or senior housing projects in Summit County. 

There are more stories similar to Mark and Polly’s — ones of couples and families who are separated because of the lack of resources here in Summit. 

Even when Mark was home, he worried about Polly. He visited Polly on Friday afternoons after lunch and would stay until Sunday afternoon, but he would have to wait until the weekend to see her again. 

“I saw her three days out of the seven — every week — rain, shine, snow, whatever,” Mark said.

There were times Mark would get stuck in Georgetown or unable to see the road through “pea-soup” fog. But before they could spend time together, there were multiple issues Mark had to solve. 

When he arrived, he would find problems with Polly’s bed and lost laundry.

“If there were something up here — if those problems existed up here — at least I’d be able to go in there in a day and take care of it,” Mark said. “But otherwise, it was a whole week.”

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic began, so Mark couldn’t see Polly at all. 

Once restrictions lessened, he was allowed to see her for a total of 15 minutes. Those minutes were spent outside, 15 feet away, separated by a tent and unable to touch.

“That was bad,” Mark said. “COVID did not do well for us.”

That’s when Mark began calling her every day. At 7:30, he would call Polly to talk and sing songs like “Danny Boy,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “America the Beautiful” and more. Though her health was declining, Mark said the songs helped. 

Polly died in January of 2021. When they called that day for their daily conversation, he knew something was wrong. He said he could hear it in her voice. 

Mark called the facility, who then called the hospital. 

“The hospital called me and said, ‘You know, she’s failing. All her vitals are bad, and she’s likely to die,’” Mark recalled.

So he got in his car to make the drive he’d made hundreds of times before. 

Mark and some of his daughters were there when Polly passed. 

“In a different situation, maybe I would have been stuck up here and she would have died alone,” Mark said, “and that probably has happened to more than one person.”

Few options

Leigh Girvin’s mother is still alive, but the Girvin family is enduring a similar dilemma to Mark’s. 

The Girvins moved to Breckenridge in 1972. Leigh’s mom, Judy Girvin, opened a business with her mother on Main Street in Breckenridge named Bay Street Company. Leigh remembers it with a huge garden out front — though the business is no longer there. 

As time went on and the store closed, Judy’s health declined. 

She had memory loss, arthritis and soon became unable to care for herself. Briefly, Leigh said a local private home care company, Lenka’s Loving Care, was hired to take care of Judy. 

Eventually, though, Judy’s health declined and staff became scarce through COVID-19. In 2021, Leigh and her father began the search for a facility. Just like Mark and Polly’s story, every option was an hour and a half away in either direction.

“It was a crisis that made the move,” Leigh said. Judy had contracted COVID-19 and was rushed to Denver in an ambulance. That was Judy’s last day in her house. 

The day after she arrived in Denver, Judy was transferred to a facility in the Front Range where she still is today. 

“I miss having her near,” Leigh said. “I miss stopping by the house and seeing her. She’s still with us, but she’s a shell of her former self.”

Leigh explained that Judy has aphasia, a disease that causes folks to have a loss of words. This means Judy can no longer voice her needs or tell people what she likes or dislikes. Leigh added that her cognitive ability has also steadily declined. 

“She’s in a body that’s shutting down,” Leigh said. 

Still, when Leigh visits, she said Judy loves to go outside to look at flowers in the facility’s garden. While Leigh knows Judy is “safe, fed, dry and clean,” she said she can’t help but wish Judy was closer. 

“It would be huge,” Leigh said regarding the idea of having an assisted care facility in Summit County. Her father could care for her, and “she would be in the mountains she loves.”

Just like Leigh, Mark said a local option would have been better for Polly. 

“If it was here, then colleagues, friends, other people’s friends and relations could come visit them,” Mark said. “There would be much less loneliness. They feel cared for. Granted, when you’re at an institution, you make new acquaintances, but your old friends and family — seeing them is a lot better for you.”

Pushing for change

Andy Searls is the president of Staying in Summit, an organization whose mission is to push for the development of housing and care communities for those who need assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing. 

“I think Summit County does a beautiful job of helping young people,” Searls said. From child care to teenagers and even 40- to 50-year-olds, Searls said the county is well-equipped. “All of these people, there’s a lot going on for all of them, but you tend to forget that seniors are very important.”

Leigh feels the same. Due to her family’s history in the county, Leigh has been around to see generations of Summit locals live and leave Summit County’s mountain towns. 

“People like this aren’t wanted in our community,” Leigh said about her mother. “It is frustrating … so many of the — what I call the community builders — are gone. They’ve passed away. They’ve had to move to facilities outside of the community.”

Both Leigh and Searls said that some excuse the lack of resources to the elevation of Summit County, saying that’s why elderly residents may leave. However, both argued against that claim.

“People leave because there’s no care facility here,” Leigh said. 

Searls made the point that she is 86 years old and still does not need oxygen.

“If you have a heart condition or maybe asthma or different things that could prevent you from staying, then yes, you do have to move,” Searls said. “But it’s not the answer for everyone.”

Searls said one option would be to dedicate a piece of property with both senior and workforce housing for families to live in. She added that seniors often benefit from intergenerational settings where they can spend time with youth. This would also potentially benefit families, as seniors could babysit while parents are at work, Searls suggested. 

There could also be assisted living, memory care and rehab services available. 

The other option is a system called a greenhouse, where there are multiple houses with room for 10 to 12 senior residents. Each house is focused on a different need-base, Searls said, including assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing. Certified nursing assistants are also present 24/7.

“It’s run like a family,” Searls said.

Though this effort has been in the works for years, Searls said the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for workforce housing halted progress Staying in Summit had made. She added that they’ve had to start over from scratch. 

On Nov. 15, Staying in Summit will host a fundraiser from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Silverthorne Pavilion to raise money for their dreams to come true. 

Along with a silent auction, cash bar and live music, Staying in Summit will screen a movie they created that shares folks’ testimonies for why there should be senior living options in Summit. 

“By keeping your seniors here you’re keeping the whole wheel of life,” Searls said. 

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