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Even the youngest state in the nation grows old eventually. Are we ready for it?

In Park City, and other small Utah towns, aging in place offers tough choices

For Park City Senior Center President Cheryl Soshnik, the question of what happens when assisted living becomes a necessity is at the top of her mind.
Sean Higgins
/
KUER
For Park City Senior Center President Cheryl Soshnik, the question of what happens when assisted living becomes a necessity is at the top of her mind.

The Park City Senior Center is an unassuming brown and tan building that almost looks out of place nestled between the high-rise condo complexes and multi-million-dollar homes that line the rest of Woodside Avenue.

For the senior center’s president, Cheryl Soshnik, and her friends, one topic comes up again and again in conversation: Where will they go when they can no longer take care of themselves?

“I really would like to stay here. I've been here since ‘81,” she said during the center’s twice-a-week lunch. “This is my home and I have 13 steps to get up to my house. And then once I get in there, I got a second floor and a basement and I can handle it really well right now. But what if I fall and break my hip? Then I can't. And where am I going to go?”

The problem is, right now, there’s nowhere for her to go in the Park City area.

Of the 220 licensed assisted living facilities in Utah, many of them are located in the population centers along the Wasatch Front or the St. George area in southern Utah. The closest facility to people in western Summit County is over the mountains in Salt Lake City.

The Park City Senior Center boasts over 450 members. Lunch is offered on Mondays and Thursdays.
Sean Higgins
/
KUER
The Park City Senior Center boasts over 450 members. Lunch is offered on Mondays and Thursdays.

While relocating might make sense for some people, it leaves many older Utahns in other parts of the state — and their families — with a tough choice: Age in place, or move away from the communities they’ve known for decades?

That conundrum is not lost on local government officials, either.

“We're very aware that the largest growing demographic in our county is in the senior population,” said Summit County Deputy Manager Janna Young. “We're starting to put a lot more attention and emphasis to this population and the needs and services so that our county truly is a place where seniors can live and thrive.”

And those demographic trends aren’t unique to the Park City area. In addition to overall growth, people 65 and older are projected to be nearly a quarter of Utah’s population in the next 40 years.

Those growing pains are being felt in small communities across Utah.

Park City Senior Center members work on a puzzle before lunch is served, Aug. 3, 2023.
Sean Higgins
/
KUER
Park City Senior Center members work on a puzzle before lunch is served, Aug. 3, 2023.

Soshnik, who is in her 70s, came to Park City in 1981. She’s seen what was once a sleepy ex-mining town grow into a modern-day playground for the rich and famous.

“The town was just kind of getting a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger,” she said. “And then when the Olympics came [in 2002], the world discovered us and everybody moved in.”

That growth has been great for some. Property values skyrocketed and some long-time residents took that as a cue to cash out and move on.

[People looking to move here have] got their wheelbarrows full of money and they knock on the doors of the people who've been here for a while and convince them that they need to go somewhere else because they want to move in,” she said.

But for Soshnik and other original working-class residents like her (she worked as an EMT and hospital data specialist before retiring), it’s not always about the money.

With no traffic and good weather, friends and family face at least a 30-minute drive to visit if she were to move to Salt Lake City. Add in rush hour traffic or a winter snowstorm and that commute time can easily double.

That drive might not seem like much, but for those who don’t drive anymore or have other needs, visiting loved ones on the other side of the mountains can be a huge burden.

“We just had a fellow here, his wife just passed, but I had been talking to him about it, like, how often do you get to see your wife?” said Soshnik. “He goes, ‘This time it's been 11 days since I've been down there. I just can't get down there.’ And so if we had a place right here in town, he could get out there every single day.”

Cheryl Soshnik talks with members of the Park City Senior Center during lunch, Aug. 3, 2023.
Sean Higgins
/
KUER
Cheryl Soshnik talks with members of the Park City Senior Center during lunch, Aug. 3, 2023.

According to officials at the county level, it’s not that there isn’t a desire to build an assisted living facility in the area, it’s that there are a lot of other factors at play besides demand from older residents.

“I do think it's probably because there's a concern about, you know, for a facility like that, you need quite a lot of workforce,” Young explained. “And then the question is, where are we going to pull the workforce from to give the care and to operate the facility?”

In Summit County, there’s not just a senior housing problem; there’s simply a housing problem. A 2022 report found that Park City and the greater county area could need more than 2,000 workforce housing units in the next five years if the area is going to keep pace with its growth.

Young also pointed to other factors such as a location’s proximity to infrastructure like transportation as important things to consider when weighing where a future facility could be located.

A five-year housing needs study for the county that will factor in everything from workforce housing to assisted living is currently underway. Young said it’s expected to be complete by December.

Other small Utah communities face similar challenges.

Moab does have an assisted living facility, but the community is scrambling to keep its nurses and other caregivers as workforce housing difficulties have hit that area, too.

Despite the challenges, there has been some movement in Summit County. The Park City Seniors formed what they dubbed a “grey ribbon committee” in 2021 to help identify housing needs for the area's older residents.

Progress, however, has been slow.

“There are so many hurdles and everything is in the ‘we're just talking’ stages,” said Soshnik.

A small housing project right next to the senior center has been years in the making and has yet to break ground.

Although there is no on-site housing, the Park City Senior Center does offer information, events and other services to the area’s older residents.
Sean Higgins
/
KUER
Although there is no on-site housing, the Park City Senior Center does offer information, events and other services to the area’s older residents.

In July, a developer pitched an assisted living complex just outside of Park City to the Summit County Council. The reception was lukewarm with councilors voicing concerns about building density and traffic in a traditionally single-family neighborhood.

Even as officials try to prepare for the future, for Soshnik, it’s Park City or nothing.

“People will say to me, ‘Well, where would you go if you can't stay in Park City?” she said. “I have no idea. I've been a lot of places, and there is nothing that flips my skirt. Nothing is pulling me. Park City is pulling me to stay.”

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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