ACTIVITIES AS OF MARCH 2021
Carlsbad is a city in southeastern New Mexico that, depending on the time of year, is home to as many as 70,000 people. According to the mayor’s office, the city “has the largest percentage of residents 55 and older in the region.” By 2030, the state's 65-plus population will be the fourth largest in the nation.
Initiative Name: Age-Friendly Carlsbad, New Mexico
Network Member Since: 2014
Government Type: An elected mayor and elected city council
Reason(s) for Joining: “For several years, Carlsbad and Eddy County had a program promoting retirees to relocate to their area,” says Janell Whitlock, director of Age-Friendly Carlsbad. “The city and county were looking to be inclusive of all ages. The age-friendly community criteria and guidelines fit their needs.”
The Financials: Age-friendly projects are funded through partnerships with city and county agencies, area businesses and local organizations. For example, a local nursing home funded a dementia seminar; donations from businesses and citizens funded Friendship Park (pictured above).
Actions and Achievements
Age-Friendly Carlsbad submitted its Age-Friendly Action Plan in 2016, issued two updates (Action Plan Update 2017 and Action Plan Update 2018) and released a Progress Report in 2020. The following efforts are among those in which the Age-Friendly Communities Council (originally called the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce Retirement Council) was involved.
A Park for Everybody
In 2017, council members Deanna Taylor and Wanda Welch, along with Oran Means, a longtime friend of Welch, came up with the idea to build a playground with equipment designed for children with physical or cognitive differences.
“No one told us, ‘No, it’s a bad idea.’ Everybody got behind us. It was a total community effort. It’s everybody’s park. That’s why it’s called Friendship Park.” — Wanda Welch
Taylor and Welch had been active members of the Retirement Council and had worked on several initiatives. They started their research with a survey of the city’s existing playgrounds. Means became integral to the needed fundraising.
“We are small but we have a lot of playgrounds,” says Taylor. “We drove around and realized that while a lot of our playgrounds are handicap accessible, none of them are handicap usable.”
Armed with an address book filled with names of civic-minded citizens with whom they had worked over the years, they called on those contacts. Before long they came up with a budget ($300,000) and a plan.
They met with representatives from a company that builds playground equipment for children with disabilities. For the playground surface, they chose a spongy rubber that allows easy movement of wheelchairs and a safe landing during falls. They consulted with special education teachers. After learning that play equipment that spins would appeal to children with autism, they included such pieces.
For the playground’s location, Welch and Taylor chose a spot next to the Riverwalk, a five-mile trail along the Pecos River. To raise funds, individuals and businesses could sponsor benches and other items, they concluded, and have them inscribed with the names of family members or friends. The response was nothing short of “tremendous,” says Welch.
“Our county came together,” she adds. “It did all of the dirt work for the park and our city came together to do all of the sidewalks around it.”
“Friendship Park is busy all the time,” says Welch. “I ride down there at odd hours of the day, and you would just be shocked at how many times Grandma and Grandpa are sitting on a bench watching the kids play. I had a gentleman tell me, ‘Every time I go home from work, I go by there, and it brings tears to my eyes.’ The park helps children who don’t have physical disabilities accept those that do. They are all together.”
Taking on Transit
The Carlsbad Municipal Transit System operates with three types of services: Demand Response (public dial-a-ride, door-to-door service), Fixed Route Service, and ADA-Compliant Complementary Paratransit Service.
The age-friendly council worked directly with the department to accommodate older residents and others with difficulty seeing. The work began by surveying residents and asking them to rate various community services, including transit. Five transit points showed low satisfaction levels during the initial public survey. Kyle Marksteiner, Carlsbad’s public information officer, was part of that team. He was tasked with putting together an action plan.
Among the main issues cited was a need for more routes. But other problems were easier to fix. Some people didn’t know where to find bus maps. Others noted that the multicolored routes on the maps were difficult for people with colorblindness to read. “Those issues were fixed pretty quickly by the transit department, which created new maps and shared information about how to get the maps, such as at senior centers," says Marksteiner.
Transit system improvements have continued since then, with larger issues addressed. More routes have been added and the system is moving toward a full ADA-compliant fleet, with lifts, and more amenities like temperature control. Shelters are being built. (Carlsbad summers can reach 108 degrees.) They’ve also added more benches. “That’s not just for seniors’ comfort,” says Marksteiner. “It’s for everyone’s comfort.”
About the improvements overall, Marksteiner notes, “All were things the city was talking about doing, but having the age-friendly committee meet with transit officials to share public concerns helped refine the process and sped it up.”
Job Fairs for Seniors
The Age-Friendly Communities Council has hosted two job fairs for seniors. They were held at the city’s senior centers. Member Stella Davis headed both fairs. “We know some seniors are struggling, living just on Social Security and they can't make it,” she says.
In the rooms where the seminars were held, staff had set up an area for attendees to sit and fill out job applications. Several representatives of businesses were in attendance and four hired older adults who had filled out applications.
“These seniors were just so grateful to be able to get a part-time job,” says Davis. “Number one, it gives them a little bit of income. Number two, it gave them a sense of self-worth. We’re hoping to do another one.”
Veteran Mental Health
New Mexico has one of the highest veteran suicides rates in the country. In February 2020, the council held a forum about veteran mental health — specifically addressing suicide and depression.
“We connected with all the veterans organizations, we had free radio spots, we did a lot to get the word out to veterans,” says Davis. And word did get out. “We had a lot of veterans in attendance. They talked about their struggles and trying to get help.”
Also in attendance was Dagmar Youngberg, an Army veteran who, as the Eddy County service officer for the State of New Mexico, helps veterans and their families obtain the federal and state benefits available to them.
“I advised them to connect through the amazing organizations in our communities: the American Legion and the VFW in Eddy County," says Youngberg. "I have veterans come into the office that have not talked with another vet for years. They got out of the military and focused on making a living for themselves and their families. I’ve been told by many, ‘It’s so good to talk to someone who understands instead of having to monitor what I say constantly.’”
Youngberg makes sure the veterans she meets leave with the Veterans Administration’s national number (800-827-1000). She also lets them know about special retreats for families and for veterans experiencing PTSD, adding, “There is even one especially for women veterans that have PTSD due to MST [military sexual trauma]. More male veterans are coming forward due to their MST as well.”
Above all, Youngberg lets veterans, many of whom feel isolated in their depression and struggles, know that “no one is alone.”
One in 10 people age 65 or older in the United States has Alzheimer’s disease. In 2019, the Carlsbad Age-Friendly Communities Council hosted a mental health seminar on dementia. It was attended by 120 people and dozens more online.
“Mental health facilities are often rare in rural New Mexico,” says Janell Whitlock, Age-Friendly Carlsbad’s director. “There was clearly a thirst for information about community resources for those who have loved ones with dementia.”
The seminar was led by Sashua Patton, a branch manager for the Alzheimer's Association, and Tracy Wohl, a manager with the state’s Aging and Long-Term Services Department.
“It’s very forward-thinking of the city and county to be part of the age-friendly initiative. Part of that initiative can also be dementia-friendly.”
— Tracy Wohl
Wohl began the presentation by saying, “This is about how the city and the county and the communities can learn about dementia and Alzheimer’s and our caregivers and how to partner to promote activities that help alleviate some of the future problems of dementia. It’s very forward-thinking of the city and county to be part of the age-friendly initiative. Part of that initiative can also be dementia-friendly.”
Patton shared that she has the Alzheimer’s at-risk gene. She used a description of her work as a way to illustrate the free services that are available: “I travel to several counties and give presentations to the general public, caregivers, family members, professionals and people living with dementia. I also do one-on-one care consultations. Sometimes it’s nice for people just to have an ear. I’ve had people call me and say, ‘I can’t do this anymore. My husband just yells at me. He’s not the man I married. I don’t want to be here anymore and I need to know what to do.’ We can talk through those feelings and I can offer support and information.”
The seminar also served in part as an unplanned support group. A member tearfully spoke of her lingering regret about having placed her mother in a nursing home for her final years — perhaps prematurely. Patton responded that many of the caregivers she has spoken with have shared a similar story. “What can you do when it gets to the point where your loved one needs around the clock care? Do you have supports that can help you be a caregiver? Sometimes being in a facility is the best thing. It’s different for everybody.”
Lessons Learned (and Advice for Others)
Janell Whitlock, the director of Age-Friendly Carlsbad, cites the need for flexibility as the most important thing she has learned since Carlsbad enrolled in the age-friendly network.
“Carlsbad had a massive population surge due to the oil boom in 2019 after we had formed our initial action plan,” she explains. “This created new needs and caused other projects to become less essential or viable. Your original action plan is a wonderful tool, but be prepared to adapt. We had a great relationship with our local AARP chapter and encourage other communities to do the same.”
“One of the biggest constant challenges relates to staff changes,” Whitlock adds. “In some cases, a critical position with one of our partner agencies might be vacated, sending us back to the drawing board until the new person could be trained. Many of our volunteers were very busy individuals who juggled a wide variety of obligations.”
Stella Davis, a member of the Carlsbad Age-Friendly Communities Council, cites another challenge: “People thought of age-friendly as something for older people when we started the initiative. The council we had with the Chamber of Commerce was called the Retirement Council. We had to start educating people that age-friendly is for all ages, for everyone who lives in our community.”
- Age-Friendly Carlsbad, New Mexico
- Visit AARP New Mexico
- Learn about the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities
- Check out the network's Member List
- Find more age-friendly network Member Profiles
Reporting by Amy Lennard Goehner
The weekly, award-winning AARP Livable Communities e-Newsletter provides local leaders with information and inspiration for making their town, city or neighborhood more livable for older adults and people of all ages. Subscribe today!
Enter a topic, name, place, etc.