Episode 5: Challenging Transportation Issues with Jessica Sandgren, Thornton City Council Member

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Welcome to Mavericks for Senior Living: Challenging The Way We Age. We are two innovators and entrepreneurs who have huge hearts and passion for our older adults. And we see all kinds of opportunities to improve today’s system for how we age.

“Transportation is a lifeline for our senior population. We need to make it affordable, accessible, and dependable.” 

Jessica Sandgren, Council Member for the City of Thornton, Colorado

In this episode we talk about challenging the issues in transportation for our older adults. Today we talk with Jessica Sandgren, Council Member for the City of Thornton, Colorado. This is a complex issue and requires stakeholders from local and Federal government, businesses, the public, C-DOT, RTD, the utilities companies and more.

Jessica is active city council, Smart Commute, the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), and the aging initiatives in the state of Colorado. She is on a mission to make Thornton a model city for senior living.


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Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people, sources and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

Voice Over: Welcome to the challenging the way we age podcast hosted by the Mavericks of Senior Living. Francis and Katherine focus on creativity ingenuity and inspiration to educate and inspire changes in the senior experience. Breaking the status quo. We want to thank our supporters Assured Assisted Living, Serenity App, Sevens Home Care and Sevens Residential Memory Care. Now get ready for the next episode.

Francis: Good afternoon everybody. Welcome. We have such an honor and a privilege to welcome Thornton Councilwoman, Jessica Sandgren. She is here to talk about some challenges that she’s seeing for not just seniors but also transportation. And so Jessica I’d love for you to tell us a little bit more about yourself some of the projects you’ve begun to work on and what is something you want to challenge today.

Jessica: So I’m actually a middle school teacher by trade. I spent about 12 years in the classroom and got into local government through some different means mostly through education restoration. When I got on to City Council I was very interested in transportation just given the number of challenges we have on this north end of town bussing. There’s just so many cars on the highway we don’t have the transportation resources that they have in Denver or Boulder. And so I joined several boards.

DRCOG which is our Regional Council of Governments oversees sort of the funding in this regional metro area for all transportation as well as aging and then also smart commute which is a workforce transportation nonprofit that works on workforce gaps. We have an E 470 board dealing with all of 470. And then also State Highway 7 coalition from basically Brighton to Boulder.

I’ve spent the last year and a half working on those issues in different ways of looking at how can we address these. But senior transportation really started coming up in conversations that I had at our Board meetings, mostly the retired and senior citizens come to those. These are the most engaged population. Listening to them and what they were dealing with trying to get to a doctor’s office or a grocery store just across town in general made me really think this is a whole different problem that I haven’t even thought about. But then when I think of my grandparents, my mother in law. And where we’re going. I wonder how are we really going to address this, not just with a car or a vehicle transportation but mobility in general interest in the city?

Francis: Is there anything in transportation that is not a challenge for our senior population?

Jessica: No, not really.

Francis: It sounds like you’re really taking on a great initiative that is going to affect not only seniors but all us.

Jessica: Yeah. And that’s the thing- it’s not just a subset of one group that’s dealing with challenge is really when you address one of those areas. All of them can be addressed. And so the only thing that changes is workforce population. We’re getting the N line up here that’ll be open next year and available. That’s great. If you live here and work in Denver but it’s not great if you live here and need to get around our city. So it’s really not addressing anyone else except for the workforce population. And it’s great that we’ll have that. We’ll keep people off I-25 but it doesn’t really help us in our own city.

Katherine: And to be clear, the N line is the light rail the commuter rail. And so part of what you are struggling with is that last mile component right. It gets you to 124th Avenue. Then there you are. So you call a lift you get on a bike if you can. There are no alternatives at the moment or are there?

Jessica: So we do have a good partnership with our county and they actually were just given a grant for funding for the aid which is another resource that we have that you can set that.

Access-A-Ride is available and you need to call ahead. I think it’s a week in advance maybe three days to get you around to town. The issue with that is if you don’t know what your schedule is going to be or you have multiple you need to go to the doctor’s office you need to go to the pharmacy you need to go to the grocery store you’re getting a haircut. You can always get to all of those places. And so maybe you can get to one of those appointments and I have to set another you know another round trip to get to the next appointment. It’s affordable and they’re looking with this new grant that will actually address some of these other concerns.

We weren’t actually having enough available buses to schedule everybody so you might try to schedule and there was nothing available. And they recognize in our county that we have a growing senior population just like everybody and that we need more of these resources. We’re hoping that this will actually address some of that. But they’re still the people who can take it over who maybe don’t need to schedule something seven days in advance. But it’s expensive. And if they’re on a limited budget, how is that really going to help them?

And even our bus fare – we have the most expensive bus fare in the country RTD – is a five dollar one way for Access-A-Ride. For them to get it, it’s a five dollar one way trip.

Francis: Well that’s expensive. And that also has to be a little bit prescheduled right.

Jessica: Yes. That’s another one that has to be.

Francis: What’s the ease of scheduling though for these big systems because that worries me a little bit it’s the ease for someone that might have vision issues or dexterity issues or not really wanting to talk to me on the phone.

Jessica: One of my neighbors, she’s someone who I hear most from, she can get to Target at a certain time but she can’t get back. When she’s done shopping she really has to think about how much time do I need. I don’t need five hours – I only need an hour. But there isn’t a ride back. If you need a walker or anything like that there isn’t a way to get around a Target or Wal-Mart, there’s missing gaps in our travel system. It’s not just about cars and buses and trains, it’s all of those things plus walking, riding a bike, trail systems in general.

Francis: Do you think we overlook mobility and transportation we take it for granted.

Jessica: I don’t think we realize what all the options are. And you know here we are. Margaret Carpenter rec center we have a great trail system outside. We are just broke ground on our new active adult center that’s going to be on this property. So we have a great resource right here for the seniors. There’s one bus stop right now and there’s not a lot of buses coming through. So it might be a 30 minute to 40 minute interval time. We need to address that again. We don’t want our seniors sitting out of the elements whether it’s hot or cold. So while they might be on a walk around are they going to be able to get back and forth from wherever they’re coming from get to that senior center. Interesting to get to these trails if that’s what they choose to do.

Katherine: That’s a good point. One of the things I know my dad struggled with or I struggled with taking care of my dad is he can no longer drive. I could call him an Uber but he then has to get himself to the uber and in the Uber. And then he has to be able to get out of the uber with his walker a real tear to the dentist office or wherever it is he’s going. What are some of the things you hear from Uber and Lyft and the ride sharing companies.

Jessica: I know that we’re actually putting together a new program with one of them and hopefully that will address the people that don’t have. A walker or anything that really they need help getting in and out of a vehicle. And that’s great. I don’t know what the cost is going to be for that. Another thing that I see that’s kind of a limiting factor. Our aging population is they might have a cell phone and be OK using that with the apps but they’re not real comfortable putting their credit card number into the phone.

And that’s another piece of the puzzle. If they’re not willing to put their credit card number in that’s kind of not going to allow them to use those ridesharing services and then also the G.P.S. they don’t understand wherever you are when you call for that ride is where they’re going to be looking for you. You can’t call from the pharmacy sitting in the chair if you’re going to be somewhere else 15 minutes later.

But it is just for a very limited group who don’t have any needs getting in and out unless we are going to have something from Uber or left or the right to your services where those cars are specific to maybe take care of and maybe it’s some sort of vehicle that allows a wheelchair to get in and out and that person driving has different training. I don’t know if that’s something that’s going to happen but I don’t see any other way that that population could access right here because I imagine it adds liability for them as well.

And some people need that door to door service and so that is completely off the table for them.

Francis: And that’s where you’re seeing more home care companies are trying to work through that. You say the caregiver really just to take that person to a doctor’s appointments to make some notes and then bring them back. But is now about $35/hour, which a lot of you have a three or four hour minimum. And if they’re living off of fixed income they’re really struggling and that’s definitely not going to be an option.

Jessica: I think we’re pricing most people out right now. If you live in Denver you take an Uber around Denver that’s pretty reasonable. They also have buses that come no matter what. It’s pretty reasonable down there. A lot of these seniors have special doctors they’re needing to see. And that may not be right here in the city of Thornton so we need to be able to get them from Thornton maybe to Centennial. For an Uber ride that’s going to be pretty pricey. The county does have a volunteer program for drivers but you know there’s never enough available and so it is a struggle. At what point do we just have to look at. We got to bring doctors into our city that are available for all of that so that we don’t have to send our seniors down south. And I know that there’s some senior resource groups that are doing those types of things looking at can we have a central location where maybe that doctor travels and I think that’s a good idea because of course we want them to not have to drive on the road and say No we don’t want to have to send them on three different buses or a train and two buses to get somewhere it shouldn’t take an hour and a half to get to the doctor’s appointment. That’s a 20 minute appointment and then another hour and a half.

Katherine: Exactly. What are some of the ideas that you have around solving the issue?

Jessica: I’ve met with our thought active adult board just to kind of listen to what their thoughts were and a lot of what comes out of it is it’s not just a senior issue it’s anybody that has a special need. So I think making sure that we have our partnerships with all of those people make sure everybody’s at the table. DRCOG actually it is a huge resource for us to AAA group through DRCOG addresses all aging concerns and so being connected to transportation. That’s a great partnership because Jaylen who handles that is aware of all things aging. They work together to see how we can address those issues. Grant money available and so the county also being a part of that conversation there you know they’re going to have more funding than we would be able to get at the city. So we address it at the county level that helps with maybe you need to go from Thornton to Westminster to whatever if it’s in the county that’s a bigger area that we’re servicing and so making sure we’re partnering with our county with our state with our private partners with our non-profit groups it really needs to be an all hands on deck partnership to address as much as we can.

Katherine: DRCOG – when I first heard that I thought it was a real doctor. Can you describe what DRCOG is?

Jessica: DRCOG is the Denver Regional Council of Governments and it is a group that really covers anyone in this metro region area that’s under their umbrella. There are members of that organization’s authoritative as a member of Westminster. So the cities pay into those to be members. The county is a part of it. And then they address transportation. They address aging. But we are representatives from each of those governing bodies and we sit at the table and then we are the board for that organization.

So we are at the table saying you know this is an issue. This is an issue RTD is a part of that. So we have all the players at the table when it comes to transportation on the aging side. They’re involved in home care. They’re involved in assisted living. They’re involved in memory care so they’re kind of seeing all of it from the senior side and then they can convey that to us in our board meetings and then we can address it. And all of our conversations did we when we apply for grants do we think about with the aging with the aging you’ve told us that they needed. Can we check that box and maybe apply for that. Great. And so it is a really collaborative group that is really dependent on each other I think to cover all of our bases.

Katherine: I love the collaborative nature of that just the idea of getting all the right players in the room have the conversations. These are there are issues that you brought up early on that we just don’t think about.

Jessica: We’re not always thinking in the back of our mind how is this going to impact our seniors where we have to look at it through that lens everything that we do in our seniors. This if we’re asking for more technology are the seniors going to use this.

Francis: Do you think or are we actually tackling the problem of transportation or are we more kind of beautifying means of transportation. And what I mean by that is getting rid of potholes on the road and re converting the bridges. I mean obviously that’s necessary but it seems like we haven’t had a lot of ingenuity in moving people at that last mile problem that Katherine brought up earlier so it’s interesting because you think you know potholes in the sidewalks. That’s all city level stuff that we have to address our level. However there are some of the main roads that are state level roads that they should normally be addressing. But there’s a limited amount of funding. And so again the gas tax we haven’t looked at for so many decades. More efficient gas cars electric cars there’s less money coming in more people on the road. The roads are wearing down. So some of those state roads cities are having to take care of all hands on deck. But in reality moving people there hasn’t been a great change. This area of north especially Adams County is one of the largest growing counties in the country. So we know that there’s people coming in. That data hasn’t necessarily gone to the right people so that when we’re doing 10 year planning they may not have had that data when they were doing their planning. So they may not have been looking at that.

Francis: Do you think government alone can solve the problem?

Jessica: No absolutely not.

Francis: If you are talking to entrepreneurs or private businesses, what would you say things that they should begin to focus on?

Jessica: If we don’t have those public private partnerships we are going to be able to accomplish any of this. So when we talk about that we really think of government nonprofit developers are to see that anyone in between and businesses and we have a really great group up here that primary businesses with those large workforce population coming to our transportation conversations telling us what their needs are and what they’re seeing and what they’re hearing from their employees. That’s a big group of people that are able to help.

So maybe they have some sort of funding that they can pitch in or when they’re developing Amazon giant parking lot maybe that can be a place at a bus stop for somebody the outlet mall when they say we need people to really get here. That helps us too because that’s another voice for RTD. So now we actually have flex ride going to the outlet mall where it wasn’t going out. New cars were built so that’s been really helpful for our seniors because now they can get from wherever they are to the Alamo and go shopping for a few hours. They know where that flex right is gonna pick them up. They know where it’s going to drop them off and they can use that. So we’re seeing small changes but it’s slow.

Katherine:  And we know that the senior population is going to basically be exploding. We’re definitely behind and the numbers that I’ve heard recently have to do not only with the big wave that is coming of people over the age of 65 but that that wave doesn’t stop.

Solutions we create today have to carry us forward for the next 60 years. So we need to get real ingenuity in here and start thinking a little bit differently. When you and I first met we talked about the city of Thornton being a kind of a model city for Senior Living. Can you say more about that?

Jessica: We really looked at that through the lens of what are seniors going to need. We have some great people on our staff. We have somebody designated just to seniors in our city. That’s been only around for just over a year now and they’ve had to hire more people already. They’re super busy. They’re finding that a lot of people really want to be a part of this. We have senior hub in our city. They’re great for delivering meals. They help out with a lot of things. They’re looking at how they can be a part of that conversation. We have a senior resource group that’s looking at help maybe being a one stop calling shop for any transportation needs that our senior clean that would help tremendously. So they don’t have to call 10 different places for one ride. We have a partnership with Unison housing which is the former Adam Tony Adams County Housing Authority now they’re called units in housing. We just went in on them with them to build the senior affordable living apartment complex. Based on income we’re opening that up just right up north in Colorado.

Francis: Is that more assisted living or assisted living or no assisted living at all it’s just an affordable apartment complex.

Jessica: Very modern and it looks like a nice apartment building down in Denver. Lots of hardwood floors beautiful views patios gardening outside. But it is for low income for them. So that was really great partnership that we had. I think they’re already all full.

And then with the adult Center going up the street here I think we really we understand that we have a huge need in our city and that we have a lot of resources. Now we just need to make sure that we’re working together. We have a partnership with the hospital. They are addressing the same issue. We have a lot of those assisted living places coming to those conversations. How can we all work together. Maybe they need a ride from this side of town to this side of town. We’re already doing that. Can we be a part of that. So I think again the conversation has to be with everybody that’s willing to be at the table. And then how can we work together to maximize flows to maximize just efficiency in general. it’s just a matter of getting out there and everybody being on the same page. We can work together to get this done.

And it’ll be a lot easier and a lot less costly for one of us if we do it together.

Katherine: And you’re really looking for Thornton to be on the leading edge for this and really show the rest of the state and potentially the nation how it can be done.

Jessica: Yes. We’re going to be the largest city in this area up here – we’re the largest city in the county. And so really I think that we can take the lead on that our fire department is great about going out there and knowing what’s available for seniors are active adult board is incredible. They come to the meetings they share their information. They’re not afraid to speak up. So I think we can definitely be a model for other cities and just you know here’s what we saw here’s what we were able to do here’s what our seniors said they needed and we addressed it.

Francis: I know this is coming out more and more –  dementia friendly city. You guys explored anymore into that? I know that’s a big push nationally.

Jessica: We haven’t talked a lot about that but I know that we have some things in place right now that are slowly starting to come around.

As far as just your safety like the Code Red that people can sign up for and it’s different alert systems that kind of go out for people to be aware. Next door is another app that a lot of people are signed up on. We can push that information out so that anybody is aware. But as far as dementia friendly I haven’t had that conversation specifically yet.

Francis: If you had to do one thing today, what would be your number one priority?

Jessica: So I think right now we’re working pretty hard on the transportation. I would really like to see that one phone call placed to be able to set up whatever trip they might need and make sure that they can get from point A to Point B. And back to point a basically in a relatively short amount of time. They shouldn’t have to be sitting a whole they should not have to be spent for anybody to get to a doctor’s appointment or to get to the grocery store. So I’d like to see the Flex ride, Access-A-Ride, and all those systems and whether it’s Uber Lyft or whoever be able to be called at one place and then the person or whoever is answering. OK. This is going to be the best route for you. This is how much it’s going to cost. This is the person’s name when I call a plumber now they tell you who’s coming to your house if there’s gonna be an Uber. I think it would help those seniors to see the picture of our picture right.

They’re getting in a car with them and it’s different than getting on a bus or a smaller vehicle with multiple people in the vehicle. But there’s one person so I’d like to see that one shop that is the call center for all things transportation and then that person kind of guides the senior to what they need to do maybe eventually the credit program that they get.

Francis: Right sure. Senior approved so certain sure drivers get the senior crew which stamp whatever that whatever stamp but that might because I would be concerned actually my grandmother she my mom a sticker. She’s 91. I could see her getting in the wrong car.

Jessica: You don’t know what exactly or where they are. Great to see that kind of a right here. Yes because it’s a social aspect to getting seniors to ride. There is a way to build relationships and maybe they wouldn’t have had an opportunity here and then they maybe are going to the same place so they can plan things differently and socially.

And getting them out of the house in a way that they know that they can rely on is powerful and that’s affordable.

Francis: Have you talked about something like a people mover?

Jessica: It has been talked about and I think Centennial is actually doing something right now with their transit where they’re going to have those I believe it’s already started and they have that inner city transit shuttle it just stops automatically or during different times of the day. They were able to get their employers to pitch in.

Francis: Oh so they had some business participation and I think you’re seeing that in different places because we’re all dealing with the same issue it doesn’t really matter which city.

Jessica: Well it makes sense and we have big companies up here the big employers are dealing not only with the transportation issue but also that’s all employees up employers are across the United States the ability to support their employees who are also caregivers so they have some stake in all of this conversation and they can I think I would like to see them all step up to the table and just be part of the conversation because there’s a lot of ingenuity that happens in these big companies as well. Additionally they have more funding than most cities. I would imagine that’s a guess on my part but I’m just saying.

Katherine:  Something we haven’t touched on is that self-driving cars are coming. We don’t know when.

Jessica: We have actually start of our yearly trips we go to NLC which is the National League of Cities and they talk a lot about driverless cars at those and it is very fascinating. The fleet systems that they have available and it’s kind of scary but also very exciting the same kind of thing. I’m not going to have to drive I could just hop on in. There’s always going to be a car available but I don’t see that in the next five years happening maybe somebody got something.

Jessica: We have smart city technology that we have to have in place before a model that’s going to work. That’s expensive. Trying to get everybody over to a certain fiber system is. I truly able to communicate with vehicles be able to have that technology to communicate. So there are some of those cars. Cars already made with that type of technology but not every city has the other side of that to communicate with the vehicles. So there’s still a lot of work to be done in that area and it’s a very expensive transition. But. You know there’s funding available and you’d have to be smart about when you’re doing any kind of development if you’re tearing up the road. Is that the time that you can put in that. Because at the time you can do what you’re doing. So Xcel Energy has to be a part of that conversation because they own a lot of the streetlights too. Yeah. So again there’s another partner that really has nothing to do with transportation but if we’re gonna have this technology to talk with our streetlights they have to be a part of that conversation.

Francis: There’s a lot of stakeholders in this process as you think all the stakeholders understand the struggles of seniors. Do you think there needs to be more education out there?

Jessica: I think there can always be more education because you know even now after hearing as much as I hear every meeting I go to heaven. So every meeting you hear a different perspective and you hear different oh that’s different. We can try that and see or not this doesn’t work and here’s why. But if you’re not at the table you’re never going to hear those things. We also go to Washington D.C. every year and lobby to our federal level. Representatives about what we need in our city. And as a region we have Adams County that goes to those trips. Northwest is there Westminster is there. So we are all there and they hear the same thing from us year after year. And so then they’re able to lobby for us when they’re talking to their colleagues. Well in my state we’re doing this. We need this. Here’s where we’re at. So again it’s not just local it’s all levels of government all levels of partnerships that we need to work together. It doesn’t matter which party you’re with it doesn’t matter which side of the line you’re on. It’s the same problem on both sides. And so working together is actually beneficial for all of.

Francis: I think it’s evident from what you’ve been saying today is that we need to get more creative looking at transportation and not just limited to maybe cars and buses and start to really expand it from the sidewalks to the street know to look at it more all inclusive. Because I think as you said is that it’s not just a senior problem it’s a anybody problem. And I think it’s a fantastic point that it’s solving it for two years is great but it’s going to have an impact on everybody.

And I think when you address it that way you can get more people on board as you said, I think this will resonate with cities across the country that are struggling to adapt or change what everyone call it to how we move people from point A to Point B.

Katherine: Well we look forward to speaking with you again and for our listeners out there. This is a great opportunity to come forward with your ideas. We know that you’re innovative and have some ingenuity around this topic so please leave notes in the in the podcast notes section and tell us what you think.

Voice Over: Thanks for listening. The Mavericks want to hear from you. Visit us on Facebook and Instagram at Mavericks of senior living or mavericks of Senior Living dot.com and leave us your comments questions and ideas for future podcasts.


Mavericks of Senior Living is produced by Serenity App, Inc. and Assured Assisted Living. This episode was produced by Katherine Wells and Francis LeGasse. The musical artist is Jason Donnelly. You can subscribe to Mavericks for Senior Living on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher. You can also find us on TwitterFacebook, or via email at challenges@mavericksofseniorliving.

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