Long Considered Young And Active, Coloradans Are Starting To Show Their Age

September 6, 2016

Originally published on December 19, 2018 8:49 pm

Eighty-four-year-old Joyce Reiche has a two-bedroom home close to downtown Eagle, Colorado, on the Western Slope. Like many, she's trying to plan for the next phase of life.

"The things I used to like to do I can't do any more, like hike, cross-country ski, go up to the mountains, and do things like that," Reiche said. "I mainly stay home, but I'm content at home."

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.

"I would never move, as long as I can take care of myself with minimum help," said Reiche, who's lived here for 65 years. "I would rather go to a nursing home when I can't take care of myself."

Her 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. The county is working to improve its services for older adults, and they'll need to. Data compiled for this story by Rocky Mountain PBS News projects that the county will likely see a 217 percent increase in its elderly population by the year 2040.

So why is Eagle County set to see one of the largest increases in the aging population in the state? Eagle County commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry points to a common factor in Colorado's mountain resort areas: second homeowners. Many come with the idea that they'll leave when they're older only to come to the conclusion they like the area and they want to stay.

"The second thing is we have an influx of people's parents," Chandler-Henry said

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 have 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.

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"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 555,000 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," she said. "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. State leaders are trying to take proactive steps to address the problems of finances, health care and living. Former lawmaker Jim Riesberg, the chairs of the Colorado Strategic Action Planning Group on Aging, said there's now a "rather large division between urban and rural."

The planning group has been meeting for a year and will soon have recommendations on everything from housing and finances to transportation and health care. In addition to new resources, Riesberg said Colorado needs to do a better job with the programs it currently has.

"Really determine all of the things that are currently being done, maybe in silos or without great cooperation with each other," Riesberg said. "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."

Joyce Reiche of Eagle 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. As many other public policy issues, it will prove challenging to find solutions on affordable housing, health care and transportation that lawmakers in both parties can agree to – and are willing to fund. 

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