Colorado’s Growing Aging Population

Colorado’s population is not only growing – it’s also getting older. Many of the state’s counties are poised to see huge increases in the number of people over the age of 65 in the next 25 years. Bente Birkeland visited one mountain county to see how local and state officials are trying to prepare for this changing Colorado.

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Eight four year-old Joyce Reiche has a two-bedroom home close to downtown Eagle on the western slope. Like many people she’s trying to plan for the next phase of life. Despite some minor aches and pains – she said she’s in good health…

“The things I used to like to do I can’t do any more, like hike, cross country ski, go up to the to the mountains, and do things like that. I mainly stay home, but I’m content at home.”

She has three adult children. One of them lives above the garage with her husband. Reiche lived in Eagle for 65 years and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon…

“I would never move, as long as I can take care of myself with minimum help. I would rather go to a nursing home when I can’t take care of myself.”

But options are limited. Eagle has only one independent senior housing facility and it’s not a nursing home. But construction is underway on a new nursing home, which will also include assisted living and an Alzheimer’s unit. It’s a public private partnership and will be the first in the county.

“We’ve really bulked up our senior programing and our attention to older adults,” said Carly Rietmann, Eagle County’s Healthy Aging supervisor. Data compiled for this story by Rocky Mountain PBS News shows the county will likely see a 217 percent increase in its elderly population by the year 2040.

“Some of the biggest barriers or struggles we have are that we are a rural community, so the resources aren’t as prevalent,” said Karen Koenemann the Healthy Communities Division Manager. “So when you start to see these gaps it’s hard to figure out who is going to fill them.”

So why is Eagle County set to see one of the largest increases in the aging population in the state?

“There are a lot of second homeowners who came here with the idea that maybe when they get older they would leave, and they decided they like it here and want to stay,” said Eagle county commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry.

“The second thing is we have an influx of people’s parents.”

That’s not to say that the issue of aging is confined to just the western slope. Douglas, Garfield, Elbert and Broomfield round out the top five counties expected to the largest increases. But everywhere from Weld County to San Miguel and El Paso, will see at least a 100 percent increase in those over age 65.

“It is going to be a lot of people,” said state demographer Elizabeth Garner who tracks the numbers. “We’re talking about a 125 percent increase in the number of people over the age 65 just between 2010 and 2030, so increasing from about 555 thousand to 1.3 million.”

While it’s a national trend, Garner notes that Colorado is somewhat unique.

“It’s really just one of those things where we’re transitioning from a relatively young state, to a little bit older. We’re not going to all of the sudden become a really old state, because we migrate a lot of young people.”

So there is time – and state leaders are trying to take proactive steps to address the problems of finances, healthcare and living. Jim Riesberg is a former lawmaker and the former state insurance commissioner. He now chairs the Colorado Strategic Action Planning Group on Aging.

“We’re seeing now some rather large division between urban and rural.”

The planning group has been meeting for a year and will have recommendations this fall on everything from housing and finances to transportation and healthcare. In addition to new resources – Riesberg said Colorado needs to do a better job with the programs it currently and has to work together on the issue…

“Really determine all of the things that are currently being done, maybe in silos or without great cooperation with each other. But I think the other thing we see is in many cases people don’t like to be talking about aging, Somebody suddenly has a parent or someone who needs a lot of help. They never thought about it. They don’t know where to turn.”

Back in Eagle – Joyce Reiche feels lucky. She said she’s comfortable aging in her community – and home, in part because of a strong support system.

“It helps to have family nearby and I have a lot of good friends and neighbors, they kind of look out, make sure my blinds go open in the morning and a few things like that.”The state’s long-term goal is to make sure every Colorado resident can feel as confident going into that final chapter of life. But as many other public policy issues, it will prove challenging to find solutions on affordable housing, healthcare and transportation that lawmakers in both parties can agree to, and are willing to help fund.

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