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New effort includes adding benches along local pathway to encourage more use by senior citizens

JASON CHANEY - This parking lot off of Juniper Street near Ochoco Creek Park and the community bike park was leveled, and new paths are being built that connect the parking lot to the bike path.

Adding more benches along the Ochoco Creek bike and pedestrian path could encourage more senior citizens to walk the path and improve mobility.

This is what local Rotarian Carol Benkosky has learned from research and from conversations with local seniors who already frequent the walkway.

"I started talking to some of the seniors who were walking around and asked them what the barriers are," she said, "and the biggest thing I hear from them is benches. We need a place to sit down because it is scary to go too far because we don't know if we will be able to get back. We don't go as far as we could because we know we can't sit down."

Benkosky began looking into age friendliness as part of an overall effort by the Rotary Club of Crook County to improve local parks. The group first thought about adding benches at the bike park, a facility they supported during its development, after noticing parents or other supervising adults lacked a place to sit while the kids played.

She then joined the Crook County On The Move initiative, which focuses on improving community-wide longevity, and began looking at ways to improve age friendliness in the community.

"Twenty-five percent of our population is (comprised of) seniors," she noted, "and in another 10 years, it could be a lot higher than that."

So Benkosky began investigating what barriers seniors faced that kept them from walking the Ochoco Creek path or going to local parks. She and other Crook County On The Move members sought to make it easier for those who already utilize the path, but remove the barriers that potentially keep other seniors from using it.

"There are three things that keep seniors from doing stuff," she said. "The studies say (they are) capability, accessibility and fear."

She explained that capability has to do with a person's physical condition and transportation options, while accessibility and fear are more related to whether a person can get to the path and how safe they will be once they are on it.

Some of these concerns are now getting addressed, Benkosky noted. The Crook County Parks and Recreation District has renovated the parking lot near the bike park, leveling it and adding paths from the parking lot to the bike park and the Ochoco Creek path. In addition, lighting will be installed along the path from Third Street to Elm Street in an effort to improve trail safety after dark.

But the trail still lacks places to sit and rest, so Benkosky determined that adding them is the best way to address the accessibility and fear issues that keep seniors from walking the trail and maintaining mobility.

"Walking is the simplest and the cheapest thing that people can do to maintain their mobility, not only for people who are getting old but people who are recovering from surgery or have gotten really out of shape and overweight," she said. "So the benches will serve all of those people."

When it came to bench placement, seniors requested that Benkosky find places that are shaded during the hot summer days, so she spent the whole summer looking for shade spots.

"I was so proud of myself. I had this lovely map of it," she recalls with a chuckle. "Then I started doing research and discovered the benches need to be about every hundred yards."

So Benkosky went back to the drawing board and developed a placement strategy that put benches every hundred yards, and in the shade whenever possible. It will take about 20 benches to cover the trail from Juniper Street to Harwood Street.

With all of that figured out, her attention has now turned to funding. While she has yet to find an exact figure, she expects each bench to cost about $1,000. The Rotary Club has committed to purchasing four of them, she said, and the Central Oregon Council on Aging has agreed to buy one. Benkosky is asking the City of Prineville to grant enough money for two more, and four or five groups and individuals have expressed interest in purchasing a bench.

Benkosky doesn't expect to purchase all 20 benches at one time, nor does she think it is necessary, but she said it is important to buy enough of them at a time to make it worth the manufacturer's while.

"My goal is to have a minimum of six in by the end of the summer," she said. "I'd like to have all of the benches installed in two years."

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